Pictures and Narcissism

During my white middle-class young-adult rite of passage backpacking through Europe, I had the fortune of passing through Bucharest, Romania, where I spent a night on the floor of a complete stranger’s apartment.

He wasn’t the first complete stranger I had stayed with and he wouldn’t be the last. – In our rigidly deliberate modern world of reservations, tours, and itineraries, there is something refreshingly antiquated about passing through the life of a stranger whom I will never see again, as if while we drink and converse through when evening turns to night, we are living out a moment in the Times of Yore, playing the Innkeeper and the Horseman as the world of schedules and automobiles rages on apathetically around us.

“I no longer bring my camera when I go places,” he told me.  “I find that when you bring a camera, you spend more time thinking about how your pictures will look than you do simply enjoying where you are.”

Four years ago, I got my first digital camera, and from that point on, I would take hundreds of pictures everywhere I went.  Perhaps the need for pictures was something I picked up from my father, who, on a ten day road-trip in the Great Plains, took eleven rolls of corn fields and grain silos.  Yet, two weeks ago, I went on a week-long road trip through the American South.  I took four pictures – more out of principle than desire, perhaps to pacify my mother if she were to ask me about my trip.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my surroundings; I just simply didn’t care to photograph them.  Perhaps without pictures to look at, I will feel obligated to go back there someday to get a second look.

Sometimes I think the need for pictures indicates a certain level of emotional dependence on the approval of society.  There’s something about publicly displayed photo albums that shouts out “Look!  I’ve been there and done that!” as if the value of going there and doing that is lost if people don’t know about it.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone.  Perhaps it’s an assertion of travelers’ credibility, or perhaps it’s fighting the perception that all we do in life is sit around and refresh the browser.  In any case, I often wonder if our photos reveal more about our insecurities than they do our hobbies.

This goes beyond pictures.  Milan Kundera has some great prose on the subject of narcissism in his novel, Immortality, suggesting that perhaps for most, we are more emotionally moved by the self-reflective image of us being emotionally moved than we are by whatever it is that’s supposed to be moving us (I’d quote his prose, but I’m lazy.  Read the book – it’s superb).  That is to say – if I’m crying at a funeral, perhaps my tears are more affected by the image of themselves than they are by being bereaved.  Or perhaps I enjoy hiking because I enjoy watching myself enjoy hiking.

If we envision our lives as if on a stage, and we display it for the world (or to ourselves, even), then are we not mere actors in a fictional adaptation of reality?  If we are consumed with acting out what we want our lives to look like, then how can we actually claim to be genuinely living life?  We would only be living a representation of life.

More and more I look at people’s photo albums and I wonder to myself: did they really enjoy doing this? – or did they only enjoy watching themselves enjoy doing this?  I realize this is an unfair judgement on my part, although I often ask myself the same question, and I find my answer is usually directly related to how much I want the moment immortalized in a photograph.

I see my diminishing need to photograph everything as an indication that I’m slowly becoming a more independent person – that I’m comfortable with who I am and what I do – that I don’t necessarily need other people to stroke my ego and provide me with a sense of self-worth.

…the irony of course being: blogging is perhaps the most narcissistic activity of all time.  Perhaps I’ve only replaced one egocentric vice with another.

Or maybe I’m subconsciously enjoying watching myself not taking photographs.  “Look at me, World!  I’m not being a self-centered egomaniac attention whore!  Look at me removing myself from the fabricated display of self-promoted awesomeness!  Me!  Me!  Me!  I! I! I!  Look at how humble I am!”

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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31 Responses to Pictures and Narcissism

  1. larissa says:

    I really love the idea that we enjoy the image of ourselves more than we actually enjoy the moment we are living in. I’ve always worried about this, too. It makes a lot of sense though; people always look so happy in their photos, but I always wonder, were they really? Because when you remember the individual emotions/feelings behind those photos, they are often so much more ambiguous/uncomfortable than the sunny smiles there. And I think we spend too much time worrying that we worry too much about what other people think about us, when perhaps the biggest culprit is ourselves. We construct an image of ourselves and then hold ourselves to that image. We say it isn’t good to stereotype other people, but we in fact can stereotype ourselves. We form a certain image of the things we should do and the things we “like” to do, and therefore we enjoy watching ourselves do those things as much as we enjoy actually doing them (if not more).

    It’s also interesting though, because the example you cite makes it seem as if there are two selves, which in a sense, there are. There is our own self, and then there is the self which has incorporated the regard of others–and this is what we are moved by, I think, when we cry at a funeral. We are moved by ourselves because we image that we are in fact someone else looking at ourselves at the funeral; that we are both society at the same time that we are ourselves. So perhaps this also reflects the degree to which we have internalized other people’s reactions/perspectives. This is not truly my own idea, I have to give John Berger credit from his “Ways of Seeing,” in which he makes a similar argument about women (that women look at themselves not as if they were women, but constantly from the point of view of a man; for example, when a woman looks at herself in the mirror, she is not looking at herself, she is imagining a man looking at her). Nevertheless, the human species is such a strangely self-conscious race–and your post is fascinating. It also makes me think, God–I really need to read Immortality. I really want to!

    I feel like I have so many more things to say but I am lazy when it comes to typing (bad luck and unfortunate for a lit. grad student)!!! Great post, thanks.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      (for the record, I haven’t forgotten to reply to this essay of yours. I’m just intimidated by it… but now that I’ve already started typing in this little box, I might as well…)

      Do you agree that women look at themselves from the point of view of a man? [if this were true] I wonder if this creates a sort of psychosexual confusion within women – that their fantasies are from the point of view of the man rather than the point of view of the woman. Any psychologists around?

      We’ll have an Immortality powwow after you read it.

  2. aver1 says:

    excellent post!

  3. mike09135 says:

    This is great. Your writing is hilarious. After taking some screenwriting/dramaturgy courses, I’ve realized it’s difficult to be funny in text. Nice job.

  4. I absolutely agree on this one. Like. it’s very true. =D.

  5. Socs says:

    I completely agree with what the stranger told you. I’ve noticed that getting the photos right does interfere with how much I enjoy and am ‘present’ in a place. But I take photos anyway. Yeah, it will always be partly narcissistic, I guess, but I like looking at the photos of and reminiscing memories of the places I’ve been. I imagine when I’m old and gray and sitting on a rocking chair, I would have these photos to look at to remember the happy days of my youth. I also try to get good photos especially of nice places in the Philippines, so that when I show them to fellow Filipinos, they would be encouraged to explore and get to know their own country. (Lots of I’s in this comment 🙂

    Great writing! 🙂

  6. Kat says:

    I’m emotionally confounded on this one. On one hand, there’s this part of me that’s like “OOOH, look at THAT, I like that thing, let me photograph it poorly!” But then there’s this other part that fully recognizes that while photographing the thing I cannot possibly be enjoying it too.

    I think photos can be windows that share the world with others. The picture of Jim Bob with his head stuck in the treehouse ladder? That’s a really good story that you can share with the world. Wedding photos on facebook let people who couldn’t come to the wedding be a part of the event. Photos of faraway places allow people to travel with you into the streets of Bangladesh, or the stone steps of Jerusalem.

    Sure, the act of taking pictures could be semi-narcissistic. A way of glorifying the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met, and the things we’ve done. But it can also be a way that others can come with you on your travels and share in the journeys of life.

    They say perception is reality. Maybe pictures can be more than narcissistic reminders of the things we’ve done, if we only perceive them so.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      I suppose I’m being too harsh on photographs and their takers. Perhaps photography could be divided into two categories of purpose: 1) the preservation of memory, and 2) the perpetuation of self. I suppose for the most part, people take pictures because they want to remember, or they want to spread the beauty of the world to those who might have seen it (as you suggest), but for the most part, my entry is inspired by facebook, which seems much more about telling people how awesome I am than it is about sharing how awesome the world is.

      • Kat says:

        Facebook does seem that way, especially when it’s surfer dudes I knew from middle school posing in some ridiculous fashion, macho pouts on their lips, holding surfboards like they’re the kings of the sea.

        Facebook is more an ego trip than anything, where people can “document” the slightest thing they do. I mean, who really cares that Suzie Q went to Zaxby’s for lunch?

      • Doctor Quack says:

        My favorites are the people that post about only one thing and on a nearly-regular basis. Usually about going to the gym or working out, or politics is another. It’s like, “Come on, don’t you have more than one interest?”

  7. Very interesting. But I really love how you just walked around in a big circle on this. ;^)

  8. I take less and less photos now that I have a “fancy” DSLR. What I DO take photos of are nature, and usually macros of plants, rocks and bugs. I also model, but outside of the studio or a location, I rarely have pictures taken of myself excepting the obligatory, “I guess we should get a picture of ourselves here so people will believe we were actually here” photo. I’d rather look at pictures of plants, rocks and bugs than pictures of me any day.

  9. becky says:

    It is true — your dad has rolls upon rolls of scenery, and much of it is cornfields and hiking trips he has taken. The problem is, when we’re gone — which of our kids is going to want the boxes of slides that contain years of cornfields, battlefields, and Yosemite scenery photographs?! For the most part, slides are nearly obsolete (which is why we bought 4 slide projectors — one for each of you). If we would sit down and eliminate most of the scenery shots and most of the nearly full rolls of family at Christmastime (before digital, we had to take full rolls in order to get them developed in order to find “just the right one” for our family Christmas picture), then we could pare down the 150 or so boxes of slides to about 8. Then we could conceivably afford to have a CD done for each of you and sell the 4 slide projectors!

    In any event, it is important to memorialize the places we’ve gone and the people we’ve met. Just don’t overdo it. Your grandparents left behind a dozen photo albums and we ended up dismantling all of them. We tossed out all of the scenery pictures because we didn’t know where the pictures were taken, and they didn’t matter to anyone. We saved the pictures of people we knew, and we sent lots of photos to others who were represented in the pictures.

    In reality, we’re the only ones who truly want to see our photos and relive the moments when we took them. And that’s okay. And if you need to take a million pictures to remember who you are and where you’ve been and who you’ve met along the way, then fine. If you post them, I may want to look at them and I may not. And that’s okay, too.

    Jeff, just so you know, you’re an excellent photographer and your pictures are entertaining — especially when you write little witticisms on each one.

    Wanna go through slides with me someday??!!??

    • Doctor Quack says:

      I’d rather have the slides than the CDs, Mom. CDs can get scratched and lose data, but slides are forever, regardless of whether or not I can find a slide projector, three hundred years from now, someone can pick up one of your slides, shine a flashlight through it, and see what it is. I distrust the digitization of pictures (and for that reason, I want one of my projects to be sometime to print out the most important of my digital photos for the very reason you expressed in your reply).

  10. Pink Ninjabi says:

    Thank you for sharing! 😀 We all need ways to express ourselves and connect with each other. Photography is another way of sharing how you see the world, through your lens, whether it be through photos or memoirs captured by blogs. Keep on sharing. 😀


  11. thelooker23 says:

    Very true; but sometimes, taking pictures isn’t about self-absorbtion. My mom takes pictures all of the time, and I think it’s more of a wanting to remember everything before it slips away; maybe trying to have reminders of the past, or trying to keep things happy, the way they are.
    But sometimes I look wayyyyy too deep into things XP

  12. Photography: the sometimes-subtle way of forcing your views on other people. 😉
    I have fun taking pictures of what interests me and I try not to get caught up in getting the perfect shot. While it’s nice, to be able to share memories through pictures, it’s also nice having those memories in your head. Very interesting thoughts you have there

  13. Raktima says:

    Your blog posts are like digital versions of my thoughts. So many of them.

  14. Interesting and refreshingly honest piece, an enjoyable read. Especially liked how it didn’t end with a summary of how brilliant you are for not being narcissistic and how we should all work harder to achieve the same level of brilliance.

  15. Haha, wicked ending. But truth man, I really liked those ideas, enjoying the act of enjoying, not the actual act you were participating in — or, acting in a manner to extrinsically enjoy something as a means to an end, enjoying your enjoyment, and not intrinsically enjoying the act for what it is. Whatever it all is, I’m going to find a bookstore with that book and then sit on their floor for a few hours till I either finish it, get bored of it, or love it so much morality is trumped and I stuff the book into by pants and walk out.

  16. Kat says:

    Okay, I have two questions. Were there tornadoes in your part of Texas? If so, did they leave you alone?

    • Doctor Quack says:

      It’s funny you ask. I overheard someone today calling family members in Dallas to make sure they were still alive because of said tornadoes – at which point I gazed outside the window to see a partly-cloudy sky and motionless air.

      Luckily, Austin seems to be right between Tornado Country and Hurricane Country.

      You live in the South, right?

      • Kat says:

        I do. Close to the coast of NC, in a pretty good spot to watch the hurricanes billow across the land. I’m far enough inland that they don’t do that much damage. We mostly get a ridiculous amount of tropical rain and enough wind to make us lose a few roof shingles.

      • Doctor Quack says:

        My sister had been living in Greenville, NC for the past four years – a grad program at ECU. I’m not sure how she liked living in the South, but I think she mentioned that the state is quite underrated.

      • Kat says:

        Ah, ECU. A few of my high school friends went there. I was adventuresome and ran away to Virginia. NC is underrated in my opinion. We don’t have theme parks or major historical landmarks, so we don’t get that many tourists. But it’s a nice place to live, I suppose. We’ve got mountains (although they’re not as big as your Western ones), and a nice warm sea (which you can swim in without freezing your butt off), and Southern hospitality, which is awesome but probably off-putting to other cultures. We’re just being nice, I swear, we’re not trying to shank you or manipulate you or whatever it is you think we’re doing. I’m not too crazy about our accents, though.

        I’m going to Chicago next week, and I’m not looking forward to the auto-judgment of stupidity that even a slight Southern accent brings. My unfortunate knack for being ditzy when I’m distracted probably won’t help much, either. But I am looking forward to the pizza. Apparently it’s the best ever.

  17. Loved this. I am guilty of all of these things, but rarely took the time to acknowledge and examine my own narcissism (further reflected by my blog, which all “me, me, me!). Perhaps I’ll reflect on it more, after having read this.

  18. CJ says:

    This is a great post. I never took pictures for the longest time. We’d bring a camera, but just never felt the need to stop, pose and smile. It wasn’t until recently that I began making an attempt to photograph vacations and trips. I think it mainly has to do with being a parent. I love looking at pictures of my kids playing on the beach, eating something new, discovering something odd… But those trips I took with my then boyfriend, now husband, the ones without pictures and just our memories, those were some of the best trips ever. =)

  19. Father says:

    The idea was to pretend I was Lewis and/or Clark seeing everything as I gazed upon the Great Plains for the first time. Besides, some guy from illinois told me a long time ago that every ear of corn is different. Another guy told me you can’t take too many Civil War cannon pictures. And as for Sierra Nevada pictures, every view is different. thus the 11 rolls of slide film. But now, slide film no longer exists, or at least no one at CVS knows what it is. So osmeone gave me a digital camera and I went digital. It was cool being able to take 900 pictures and not change film spools. I once took 900 digital pictures of the Missouri River and various Civil War battlefields. How many times have i looked at them? Zero. That’s because i can’t figure out how to put them on a slide projector. So they sit, unviewed, on a chip, which I can’t find. Nor can I find my camera. Thus endeth picture taking, although spmeone told me I can take pictures with my phone. Come on. Next they’ll be telling me I can talk to my phone and ask it questions.

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