Public Mirror + Social Photography = Photobook

By Alex Gwaze I Photographer

Download the free Photobook: Public Mirror [Social Photography / Selfies]


“The web has become a hall of mirrors, filled only with reflections of our data”. (Schraefel, 2015: para 1)

There are two kinds of mirrors that most people are familiar with; 1.) the plane mirror that allows an individual to view an unobstructed reflection of the Self that appears to be backward, since it is reversed left to right, and 2.) the two-way mirror that affords a ‘spectator/s’ the opportunity to look through the mirror and scrutinize an individual’s actions, and collect data unobserved. When we look into a plane mirror, one of the most persistent questions we ask ourselves is, “who am I?” As we move further from the ‘mirror’ and interact with the world, we notice ‘others’ observing our actions and behaviour. Consequently, we ask ourselves, “what is my purpose or role in society?” These queries attempt to define the Self in contradictory yet complimentary ways. The latter is what we do in society; purpose is a public-communal act, evidenced through noticeable consistent action, validated by others. On the other hand, “identity is not stable, it is tenuously constituted in time and instituted through a stylized repetition of acts … which the actors themselves and the mundane social audience, perform in the mode of belief”. (Butler, 1988: 520) Identity is therefore a ‘performative illusion’ affirmed by our immediate communities and initiated by an intimate desire to understand our Self.

“In the hall of mirrors of the Internet, the phenomena of photo-sharing provides a similar yet more complex environment for projection and perception of Self, in which the authors are no longer, for the most part, artists but rather the ordinary person”. (Donnachie, 2015: 7) “Social media allows for people who fall outside the norms of mass culture to become popular … [and it] provides users with fairly open-ended tools and techniques that an individual can select to represent themselves”. (Marwick, 2015: 138) Amateurs can now enact a more democratic public representation of themselves that reflects a dynamic set of personal interests and aspirations – rather than demographics, marketing strategies, and mainstream media’s archetypes. This contemporary practice of curating and sharing personal photographs to SNS/A is the ‘two-way public mirror’ known as ‘Social’ Photography.

‘Social’ Photography has provided a new arena for conversations and commentaries about race, gender, politics, and social inequality to take place in the public sphere – and has evidenced the capacity for ‘ordinary’ photographers to directly communicate germane versions of their ‘ideals’ and ‘lived experiences’ to the digital super public sphere and mainstream media; yet it’s relevance as an art-form is relegated to that of a social past time.

Because ‘Social’ Photography is often regarded as a meaningless pastime – with much of the disdain assigned to the practice of taking selfies – this project opted to embrace the duality, mobility, accessibility, intimacy, and communicative qualities of the smartphone, and conjoin it with traditional Portrait Photography’s meditative and measured approach – to depict a conversation between the Photographer (Portrait Photography) and the Self (‘Social’ Photography). Twenty African participants from (4) cities and (2) countries, collaborated with the photographer to create this series of images. The participants ranged from musicians to cashiers to film-makers, students, make-up artists, models, dancers, engineers, and IT specialists, just to name a few.

Instead of capturing a fleeting moment that will be disseminated on social media, the participants were encouraged to conceptualize a more ‘permanent’ SNS/A ‘scene’ that best reflects their current ‘aura’, for a photobook. Upon completion, this Public Mirror project discovered the ‘social’ photographer’s ability to recycle societal realities and curate a meaningful democratic public image in (6) key areas – (i) Activity, (ii) Participation, (iii) Identity, (iv) Glamour, (v) Protest, and (vi) Spectacle – as evidence that exemplifies ‘Social’ Photography’s usefulness in understanding the Self and the Self’s role in the public arena. Using this criterion, it argues for the legitimization of ‘Social’ Photography as a contemporary discipline within the Creative Arts, because, “nothing is more acceptable today than the photographic recycling of reality, acceptable as an everyday activity and as a branch of high art”.(Sontag, 1977: 115)

Download the full Photobook: Public Mirror [Social Photography / Selfies]

Additional information:

With all the public information about any famous person, topic or event ‘googleable’ on the Internet, there seems to be nothing new for ‘digital natives’ to discover other than the elusive Self. The Self is the ‘new frontier’ and the smartphone camera is at the forefront of this quest, unearthing and exhibiting different kinds of content everyday. With over 95 million photographs and videos shared on Instagram daily; Photography has merged with social networking sites and applications (SNS/A) to become a recognizable phenomenon called – ‘Social’ Photography. Despite its rich association with legitimate visual art-forms and numerous scholarly articles examining it’s various forms – the term ‘Social’ Photography is unfamiliar to most.

Cited Sources:

Butler J (1988) Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal 40 (4): 519-53

Donnachie K (2015) Selfies, #me: Glimpses of Authenticity in the Narcissus’ Pool of the Networked Amateur SelfPortrait. In: Lunn J (ed) Rites of Spring. Perth: Black Swan Press, pp.1-15

Marwick A (2015) Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy. Public Culture 27(1): 137-160

Schraefel MC (2015) The web has become a hall of mirrors, filled only with reflections of our data. In: Available at: (Accessed on 23 October 2017)

Sontag S (1977) On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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