Over 100,000 residents of the island of Bali are evacuating after Indonesia’s disaster agency issued its highest-level warning on Monday, in response to the ash which has been spewing from Mount Agung. All of which apparently has some people asking: Does this natural disaster make my butt look big?
I have something to admit: I hate selfies. I’ve tried hard to be less of a hater, but something just makes me cringe whenever I see someone give that telltale head tilt as they stare blankly at their phone’s camera. In fact, it bothers me that my phone even has a front-facing camera at all. Why should I have to pay for something I have no use for? I can’t honestly say why I feel this way. Sure, taking a selfie is a little self-obsessed, but who isn’t, right? I mean, I have a headshot as my Facebook profile picture, which has to be at least a million times more vain than a selfie. But still, they irk me. So when a coworker asked if I wanted to go to a selfie workshop last night, I was surprised at myself when, for some reason, I said yes. I think I realize now that I was hoping to figure out exactly why I hate selfies so much. The workshop was held at the American Apparel store in Williamsburg—an arguably perfect place for something like this—and it was hosted by Emily Oberg, an on-air personality for Complex and, relevant to the night’s event, a prodigious selfie-taker with 178,000 followers on Instagram. Oberg’s feed is filled with hundreds of selfies, all of her in different stylish outfits, like some kind of one-woman fashion magazine. As “Insta famous” as she is, however, I had not heard of Oberg before last night. This probably has something to do with the fact that I do not have an Instagram, something that is, obnoxiously, almost a source of pride for me.
(Photo: John Ambrosio)
When I arrived at the store for the 7 p.m. workshop, I could tell that my presence was immediately noticed. I was not only the first person there, but also, in a store full of hip, well-dressed Brooklynites, I stood out as a baby-faced dweeb with a $17 haircut and a button-down shirt I bought at the Gap five years ago. One of those hip people quickly asked me if I was looking for anything and then directed me to the back of the store, where a projector and several mirrors were set up, along with a cooler full of complementary Balance brand water and, for some reason, popsicles. A few minutes later, Oberg arrived. She was wearing, I would later find out, a carefully considered outfit made entirely of clothes from American Apparel. While we waited for people to trickle in, she talked to me briefly about selfies, explaining that she had some dos and don’ts, but that, really, the whole point was to “have fun and be confident.”
A few minutes into our conversation, enough people had arrived that the rep from the dFm, the branding agency that connected Oberg and American Apparel, announced it was time to start. The workshop itself was fairly loose. They had set up a slideshow with some examples of good and bad selfies, which Oberg used to illustrate some of her common-sense advice for taking selfies: know what angles you look best from, use natural lighting, don’t photoshop, etc. Oberg then did a Q&A with the 25 people in attendance. She took some selfies with people and talked for a while about some of her more general thoughts on selfies, like whether Kim Kardashian’s book is any good (“it’s funny!”) and when a selfie might be inappropriate (a funeral). It was clear that little of the workshop was planned. Instead, it felt more like a last-minute presentation in a high school English class.
(Photo: John Ambrosio)
One part of her lecture, however, really resonated with me. It was the part that—if my aversion to selfies is as obvious as I think it is—was almost certainly directed at me.
“The people who hate on taking selfies or call it vain, most of them do that because of their own insecurities,” Oberg said. “If you go on their Instagram, they probably don’t have many selfies on it. That’s probably for a reason.”
She had me there. If I had an Instagram (that’s twice I’ve mentioned it now) I can guarantee it wouldn’t have a lot of photos of me on it. “[Taking selfies] shows that you’re OK with who you are and you love yourself,” Oberg said. “And that’s good.” Maybe, I thought as the presentation continued, I’m more in the wrong here than I originally realized. Maybe my loathing of selfies doesn’t come from a misplaced sense of superiority or righteousness but, instead, a sense of self-loathing. Or selfie-loathing, if you will. I considered asking Oberg about this once everything was done. After the workshop ended, Oberg stuck around to take selfies with people. The room, it turns out, was small enough that I could overhear what pretty much anyone said to her. That’s how I realized that I wasn’t the only one there with ulterior motives.
(Photo: John Ambrosio)
A few people, including a young woman in a black summer dress and a young man clutching a DSLR camera, asked Oberg for advice on getting a job at Complex. Similarly, a high school student from Utah who was “just visiting” the city asked her about breaking into fashion. By far the most demanding, however, were the three teenage boys who lingered for nearly an hour after the event was over. They’d sat in the front row during the workshop, sharing their thoughts and feelings on Oberg’s advice, usually without prompting. Afterwards, they asked for dozens of selfies with Oberg—some groups shots, some that were one-on-one with Oberg and even a few non-selfies, or “photographs,” as they’re called. I asked one of them, a 19-year-old Queens native named Jonathan Sabo, what he liked so much about selfies that he decided to come to a workshop dedicated to them. He paused for a moment before quietly admitting, “I was really never a huge fan of selfies, to be honest. I came to meet Emily.” The reason for the workshop suddenly made a lot more sense. Sure, it was clear from the beginning that it was nothing but a fairly flimsy excuse to get some bodies into the American Apparel (you get 30 percent off if you show a selfie you took in the store at checkout!). But as someone who (for the third time) doesn’t have an Instagram, the concept of Insta fame didn’t really factor into my initial analysis of the situation. In that moment, however, I realized that the thing drawing people in wasn’t a devotion to any selfie lifestyle or even the hope that they’d have fun at some novelty seminar, but the promise of meeting the face they’d seen in thousands—5,000 by Oberg’s estimation—of selfies. I confirmed with Oberg that the dFm had paid her to be there—or rather that they had paid her to post about the event on her Instagram, as she clarified. That got me a little irked all over again. After all, I had come to find people who felt strongly enough about selfies that they could tell me why I was wrong, but instead found a room full of career admirers and lovelorn teenage boys. I felt weirdly duped—as if I was living inside one of the sponsored posts for which Oberg said she gets between $1,000 to $4,000. People who had appeared to be genuine lovers of selfies, just as she appeared to be a genuine lover of the clothes she hawked, were revealed to be simply after a job or a brush with Insta fame.
(Photo: John Ambrosio)
To be fair, I don’t think any of this makes any of those involved bad people. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with trying to hustle a career together or having a crush or even taking some money to hype a brand. That being said, you’re free, just as I am, to come to your own conclusions about whether one kind of “posing” is like the other kind.
When photographer Stéphanie de Rougé moved to New York in 2006 she settled on the south side of Williamsburg. “From the first day, I knew I was at home here,” she wrote on her website. “Williamsburg had it all: the Brooklyn grittiness, the sexy wild parties, the shady pharmacy, the old pigeon cooper and the sweet little café around the corner. Other than the fact that yellow cabs refused to cross the bridge, life was good.” Yes, yes it was. But then Starbucks moved in, and Whole Foods and Apple made their nefarious plans.
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