September 26, 2016

They’re With Her

Today, the day of the first Clinton-Trump debate, seems like the right time for this photo to go viral: Hillary Clinton, apart and alone on a pedestal, waving to a crowd that has its back turned to her to take selfies. It has perhaps already become one of the iconic photos of the campaign, but its significance transcends this particular race. It seems to symbolize life in 2016: the campaign, the phones, this new conspicuous self-involvement. By seeming to turn their back on history, the mostly young people in the crowd become part of it.

Like many viral images that supposedly demonstrate that the masses are phone-zombies, this photo is a bit misleading in what it appears to depict, as this Quartz article details. It was taken while Clinton met with an overflow group of supporters at a rally in Orlando to give them a chance to see her up close. Having done many of these events, she knows everyone will want selfies with her, so she accommodates them, making specific time for it: It’s okay, let’s all do it together. Clinton explicitly gave the crowd permission to turn their backs on her, telling them, “Anyone who wants a selfie, turn around right now.”

That permission (I am Hillary Clinton and I approve this selfie) is not obvious in the viral image. If it were, it likely wouldn’t have spread so far. It would just be a picture of campaign politics as usual, with supporters’ adulation framing the dignity and electability of a candidate. Instead, it seems to capture a moment in which supporters, enthralled by the affordances of their forward-facing cameras, admire themselves more than the candidate they ostensibly support. The role of a presidential candidate, the popularity of this photo seems to suggest, is not to lead a nation but to enhance the number of likes a selfie gets.

We’re now used to phones mediating important moments, pointing at popes and presidents en masse. The posture of taking a selfie with something over your shoulder is also a familiar one; the Clinton photo captured it a way that felt timely and indelible. For a moment, the crowd turned away from the moment and put it on a screen with themselves, for that audience that networked cameras and social media always promise. But what makes selfie-taking like this so photogenic in itself, so apparently newsworthy?

It would be more surprising if people didn’t take selfies with famous people. Everyone knows what Hillary Clinton looks like, but not everyone has been in the same room with her. The same goes for the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, Kanye West. We want to inscribe our specific, individual presence into images of ultra-recognizable landmarks, to prove we were really there and in a sense prove we are as real as they are. No image search does that.

Clinton in this photo is like the David statue, an indisputable historical object beyond any opinion one has about her. Clinton’s crowd is doing more than documenting her or her event — rather they are performing a kind of double documentation: a document of one’s act of documenting. (The viral photo takes it to the third power: It documents double-documentation.)

In an era of omnipresent surveillance, when it feels as though there is redundant coverage of virtually everything that is expected to be interesting, there is nothing we can add other than our own unique view, presence, and face. And even this is anticipated, as Clinton’s granting permission shows. Our subjective view is preprogrammed, already integrated into the spectacle.

If photos on social media tend to be more akin to talking than recording, then this kind of selfie is like speaking in your own voice. But everyone doing this together creates a somewhat ridiculous tableau of hundreds of people acting individualistically in sync. The Clinton photo connects this faintly ludicrous vibe to young people (especially young women), fitting a pre-existing narrative about millennial narcissism. They prefer the screen to the real thing, especially when they can stick themselves in the frame.

This is not what happened at Clinton’s event. But the image fits that disingenuous narrative about narcissism, which is why it and other photos like it become popular. In this way, the Clinton image documents how we document now, at a moment when mediation is seeming to overwhelm history. It captures a fear about what internet-connected cameras are doing to people today and efficiently links it to another widely feared phenomenon, Hillary Clinton.

But maybe some would read it another way: It suggests that whoever wins tonight’s debate, or the election, is largely beside the point. The phone is really what dictates the future.