Institutionalizing the ‘Selfie’

In his book The Burden of Representation (1988) John Tagg writes regarding institutional photography,

“A vast and repetitive archive of images is accumulated in which the smallest deviations may be noted, classified and filed. The format varies hardly at all. There are bodies and spaces. The bodies… are taken one by one: isolated in a shallow, contained space; turned full face and subjected to an unreturnable gaze; illuminated, focused, measured, numbered, and named; forced to yield to the minutest scrutiny of gestures and features.” (Tagg 64)

The modern ‘selfie’ has thusly been institutionalized by state powers, with the help of commercial products including social media, to arrive at an antiphonal autopraxis between individuals and the state by which state subjects catalog their own lives, and the state collects that information as evidence. According to documents leaked my Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts “millions” of images per day, around 55,000 of which are defined as “facial recognition quality images.”

“As well as its own in-house facial recognition software, the documents cited in the report note that the NSA also relies on commercially available facial recognition tech, including PittPatt — a company owned by Google — to process the data it is harvesting.”

As facial recognition software reaches human-level accuracy, striving toward super-human accuracy for recognizing individual faces within a crowd, the weaponization of that technology by the state in the interest of producing a certain artifactuality (the making of facts) risks a wholesale subversion of our right to privacy on the Internet. In this system, visualizing oneself with ‘selfies,’ and sharing those images with close friends on social media, adds entries to a state-sponsored retentional apparatus that treats images as facts in the event of criminal intervention. In result, ‘selfies’ become discrete acts of metadata production, by which a surrogate self is held in reserve, made to represent the ‘selfie’ subject in his/her absence.

“The body itself is invested by power relations through which it is situated in a certain ‘political economy’, trained, supervised, tortured if necessary, forced to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. Power is exercised in, and not just on, the social body because, since the eighteenth century, power has taken on a ‘capillary existence’.” (Tagg 71)


Lomas, Natasha. “Smile, Your Selfie is a Mugshot for the NSA.” TechCrunch. June 1, 2014. Accessed December 10, 2015. <;

Tagg, John. Evidence, Truth and Order: Photographic Evidence and the Growth of the State. In The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. University of Minnesota Press. 1988. Print.


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