• Chelsea Slack

Reflection or Refraction?


What do we see when we look in the mirror? Is it an accurate representation of who we truly are?

What is more real - the selfie or the reflection? It was not long ago that people thought of themselves in photographs as “posed” or “fake.” People would say they couldn’t “force a smile.”

Now selfies are everywhere and forward-facing cameras are regularly used as mirrors. Worried something is in your teeth? Check your phone. Need to put on lipstick? Check your phone.

According to Barthes, “The Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror).” But what happens when the photograph becomes the mirror?

The era of photo editing is certainly nothing new. Photoshop has been around since the ‘80s and photographers are known to have used early techniques to edit their work beginning in the late 1800s.

But, a sea change in terms photography and self-portraits has undoubtedly taken place. We take the same selfie fifty times until we get it just right (Kylie Jenner is known to take up to 500 to get the right shot).

We apply filters, teeth whitening, blemish correction, and so on and so forth until the image is “perfect.” Curating our images has become so ubiquitous that the line between our virtual selves, portrayed often through self-portraits, and our “real selves” hasn’t just become blurred.

Instead, our “real” selves, the person we see in the mirror, ceases to exist, or at least ceases to be relevant. We have, in a way, reverted back to the era of painted portraits, which Barthes says is a form divorced from the actual photograph.

Painted portraits allowed for the subjects to influence the artist, or vice versa. Winston Churchill is known to have attempted to change the way Graham Sutherland portrayed him in a portrait commissioned by British Parliament.

Despite being 80 when it was painted, Churchill wanted to be depicted as looking agile and strong rather than old and frail.

In lieu of reflecting who we truly are, we now use photographs to refract. Rather than “letting ourselves be photographed” as Barthes put it, we secretly distort our images to hide all imperfections.

These distortions should befuddle us. But do your friends ever say, “Hey why do you edit your photos so much? That doesn’t even look like you!”

Nope. They click like or comment on how beautiful/handsome you are, which reinforces the our contorted self-view. At what point will we not even know ourselves any more, or are we already there?

The only time you ever hear of someone being “called out” for their images looking nothing like them is either on a Tinder date or the TV show Catfish. It’s time for you to take a long hard look at yourself and ask - what is more accurate, what I see in the mirror, or on screen?


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© 2018 by Chelsea Slack