Robert Cornelius, looking at me with haunting eyes from beyond the grave, was an American chemist and amateur photographer who entered history as the creator of the first ever selfie in – wait for this – 1839.
Selfies, like everything else, have evolved hugely in the nearly 180 years since then – courtesy of the innate human capacity to experiment, subvert or transform. And so the first internet webpage is now surrounded by millions more, where people can hook up with or ditch each other with a simple swipe movement while away the hours chasing imaginary beings with your phone or showcase their so-called perfect lives on Facebook, that virtual shop window where others can witness the illusion of perfection.
Somewhere along the line, the selfie stopped being just a digital souvenir of our experience and became key to validating our experience. Yet some of these images, as playful and neutral as they seem, can be anything but – doctored, manipulated, filtered, Photoshopped, all reality obliterated from them, in a relentless pursuit of a new cannon of perfect beauty.
Picture this: every image that we create, take in and decode, helps us interpret the world better, like every word we take in. It is our responsibility to use that power to understand and inhabit the world responsibly, in a nurturing way towards ourselves and others.
What we are saying about beauty to younger generations concerns me. Whatever beauty is, it goes far beyond ‘cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin’. It is about confidence irradiating from within, about working towards achieving your dreams and living with an open heart. It is about making the most of what you have and enjoying your one-way ticket through life. You may (or may not) choose to conform to the rules, and either way is OK.
And so, next time you are standing in the midst of a sea of tourists, avoiding a dozen selfie sticks, in a square in Florence, Barcelona or London, remember that it all started in Cornelius’ back room in Philadelphia, nearly 200 years ago. Although, of course, it was meant as something completely different, something the opposite of fluffy.