Pinoy selfies | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Pinoy selfies

/ 03:11 AM October 08, 2014

It was inevitable: The “winner” of the “Salita ng Taon” or (Filipino) Word of the Year for 2014 organized by various groups including the Filipinas Institute of Translation, was “selfie.”

The word, referring to a person or people taking a photograph of themselves, has gone through a long journey. Self-portraits preceded the word “selfie” by more than a century. The Library of Congress has an amazing online catalogue of prints and photographs where you can find what might have been the first self-portrait, taken in 1839 by an American pioneer of photographs, Robert Cornelius.


The early cameras took photographs through a very slow process where you removed the lens cap, began the shooting process and still had time to stand in front of the camera, then returned to put the cap back to end the “shooting.”

When shutter-type cameras came about, it became more difficult to do self-portraits because once you clicked on the shutter, you had a photograph. But then timers came about, allowing a delay in the shutter’s clicking and giving you time to run in front of the camera.


The process was crude, though, because you did this “blind,” not knowing if you’d be in the frame, and with what kind of pose. You wouldn’t know either until you had the film developed and a photograph printed out.

One way to “trick” the camera was to take a photograph of yourself in the mirror, but that was still awkward, sometimes with the mirror frame captured in the photograph.

Digital cameras opened new possibilities for self-portraits, because you could reverse the camera lens and see yourself. And when cameras on cellphones became common, with this front camera lens option, self-portraits became so much easier.

First in 2002

The first recorded use of the word “selfie” was in an Australian Internet forum dated in 2002, but it took time for the word to catch on, encouraged by sites like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, where people go to great lengths for self-expression.

It was chosen the English word of the year in 2013 by the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. And that same year, in December, three world leaders—US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt—made world headlines when they were photographed doing a selfie at a memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela of South Africa. That selfie brought some negative reviews because it was considered too whimsical for a funeral. Others thought it wasn’t dignified for, well, dignitaries to do selfies.

Today, selfies are studied by staid academics interested in what these photographs have to say about people, culture, and society. For individuals, it speaks of a self-presentation, how you want friends, even the world, to look at you.


The more formal shots—for example, graduation pictures—are those where you pose for a studio or a professional photograph. Once you move into self-portraits, a person spans the entire range of presentations, from sort of solemn and serious to wacky and lackadaisical.


Selfie generation

The term “selfie generation” is sometimes used negatively to refer to young people’s seeming obsession with “I, me and myself,” such as when they post endless photographs of themselves on Facebook. But I’ve found that among Asians, and Filipinos, selfies are more about groups, friendships, the barkada—like Obama and company at the memorial service for Mandela.

But we don’t limit ourselves to three people, which is why we have the Monopod, where you mount the camera on an extensible metal rod that can stretch up to a meter long, and which allows you to photograph a larger group, including yourself.

Now, you might ask: If it’s going to be a group photograph, anyway, why can’t you ask someone to shoot the group?

The answer is that you want everyone to be in the picture. Sometimes even the restaurant waiter, who used to be the one assigned to take the photograph, is pulled over and included. Our selfies have a strong inclusive element.

And an element of warm camaraderie as well. There are a few seconds of planning who poses next to whom, and how you get yourself into the frame, but everything else is spontaneous, even chaotic, so that every photograph is in a sense wacky.

Selfies also say something about who you consider important: the new baby, the new inspiration in life… or the celebrity you run into in the mall, in the hotel lobby, even in a hospital. Since I work in the health field, I’ve gotten to see so many selfies taken by hospital nurses and doctors of themselves and movie stars visiting an ailing relative, or the movie star him/herself confined as the patient.

To be able to show a selfie, of yourself (or your barkada) and the celebrity, is to be able to boast and say you had enough guts to approach the star to request a selfie. Word has spread around, too, on who the selfie-friendly celebrities are.

In the Philippines, there’s been a twist to the VIP selfie. Last week I wrote about how business cards have become accessories to corruption. When a person is flagged down for a traffic violation, he/she might flash the business card of some politician, military or police person, with the inscription “Please extend assistance to…”—a signal to the traffic enforcer to let the person go.

After a recent scandal involving a police official who claimed that the card presented by a woman who claimed to know him had been faked, there’s been a crackdown on the use of these business cards, as well as… selfies. It seems that some people take a selfie of themselves with some VIP, print out the photograph, and show it to a traffic enforcer to try to get off the hook for a violation. It’s a variation on the business-card gimmick.

All this is part of being in a feudal society, where association with a powerful person gives you a piece of that person’s power. And it’s a healthy sign that Filipinos are reacting to this crude misuse of power using business cards or selfies.

Etiquette around the taking and sharing of selfies is still a work in progress. Meanwhile, though, let’s keep the selfies as an expression of fun and friendship. Even when taken with a VIP, the selfie isn’t quite hero worship; instead, it suggests a willingness on the part of the VIP, celebrity or star to descend to earth and be just another one of the gang.

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TAGS: British Prime Minister David Cameron, facebook, Filipinas Institute of Translation, Instagram, Oxford English Dictionary, Salita ng Taon, Selfie, US President Barack Obama
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