Why Frederick Douglass would support 'selfies'

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Its no surprise that 2013 was the year of the selfie, with everyone from Kim Kardashian to President Obama making headlines for taking self portraits on their smart phones.

While pictures featuring shirtless septuagenarian Geraldo Rivera might serve as cautionary tale about taking selfies too freely, the practice marks a huge shift in our relationship with the photograph.

Pictures have been around for over 180 years, but the ability of everyday people to take pictures of themselves with the phones that they carry with them all the time has transformed the process. This is a tremendous change. Just two decades ago, none of this selfie-making was really possible.

When I was in college in the 1990s, we had affordable and portable cameras, but because they were dependent on relatively short rolls of film and processing the images at a drug store or supermarket, we didn’t take our own pictures on an everyday basis. And we didn’t take many self-portraits; after all you couldn’t see what the image looked like, and taking it over and over to make sure that you were in focus, looking cute, and capturing just what you wanted to see was an expensive and time-consuming proposition. There were no smart phones (my first cellular phone was the size of a suitcase, was corded, and had to be plugged into my car lighter in order to have enough power to work) so pictures were reserved for special occasions and were much more hit or miss.

Today, anyone with a phone can document what they are doing, and make visually pleasing photographs of themselves and the world around them. Using social media like Instagram, Vine, and Twitter people can become their own documentary filmmakers, chronicling the world as they see it.

But this isn’t the first time when portraits were all the rage. In the mid-nineteenth century thousands of people sought the opportunity to have photographic images made using the newly available technology. In fact many of the earliest successful photos were self-portraits that required the subject to sit still for hours while their image was emblazoned on glass. Frenchman Louis Daguerre innovated the earliest photographic techniques and created a process that resulted in clear and long lasting images using silver, iodine, mercury, and salts. The resulting photographs called daguerreotypes were affordable and in high demand around the world.

The availability of the popular and affordable daguerreotypes and the other methods of photography developed in the 19th century happened to coincide with the black struggle for freedom in America. And as literary and photographic scholars Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith remind us in their recent collection of essays, Pictures and Progress, the abolitionist movement’s greatest spokesperson, Frederick Douglass, was enamored by the photograph.

Douglass, born into the deprivation of slavery in Maryland in 1818, was in so many ways a self-made man. Given of his status as chattel of the plantation, Douglass had to be the architect of his identity; he never knew the identity of his white father, and only vaguely remembered his mother’s face because she was sent away to work on a distant plantation when Douglass was just a small child. Douglass was not even aware of his real birth date; frequently, no one bothered to record or celebrate the birth dates of enslaved babies on his and many other plantations. Cobbling together his literacy from a few basis lessons given by a slave mistress and white boys talking about their school lessons to become one of the most eloquent statesmen in American history, Douglass was a firm believer in the ability of black Americans to reshape their identities and destinies despite the trauma of enslavement. And he saw pictures as an integral part of that process.

Douglass who posed regularly for portraits also publicly spoke and wrote about photographs frequently. He delivered one of his speeches “Pictures and Progress” twice. The text of the speech reads as if Douglass could foresee the marriage of technology and image making of the past year. Douglass saw picture making as the cousin of transcontinental communication, writing that “Morse has brought the ends of the earth together—and Daguerre has made it a picture gallery.” Douglass saw this new “picture gallery” as vital, a way for people, and black people in particular, to tell the stories of who they were. He stated that “when I come upon the platform the Negro is very apt to come with me. I cannot forget him and you would not if I did.”

Douglass argued that pictures and his life of abolitionism went hand in hand. Pictures could be a liberatory force; they were open to all, a way for people from all walks of life to present their own truth to the nation and the world. “Men of all conditions and classes can now see themselves as others see them, and they will be seen—by those [that] shall come after them. What was once special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. “

So as people make their Vines and dress up or down to show off in their selfies for Instagram and Twitter, we should be reminded of the ways that everything old can be new again. How can we best meet Douglass’s challenge and see the world of possibilities without leaving home? What will we do with this great privilege? What do we want to leave for those that come after us?

Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley