The selfie gets little respect as an art form. Snapping an image of one’s face with a phone held at arm’s length and sharing it with the world certainly seems hollow and narcissistic. But I view the selfie differently. In the age of the War on Terror, it can be a highly political act — whether the shooter realizes it or not.
Driven by fears of terrorist attacks and leaks of state secrets, the U.S. government has doubled down on surveillance. I know this fact well. In 2002, I was mistakenly accused of being a terrorist and investigated by the FBI. After the debacle, I decided to help the bureau out by taking pictures of my every mundane move and location: airports I transited through, food I ate, hotel beds where I slept, even the toilets that I used. Then I would post the photos online, where the FBI — along with anyone else — could see them. Over the past 14 years, I have posted more than 80,000 pictures, taken with various generations of cameras and phones. These selfies are different from most; they aren’t of my face, as I’ve decided to turn the camera around. Yet they offer an ever-open window into my “self” as it wanders through and interacts with the world.
The images are deliberately unorganized on a website that does not have a user-friendly interface. A lot of time, focus, and energy, by an FBI agent or other viewer, would be required to thread together the thousands of points of information. This is how self-documentation at once mimics and defies state surveillance: My selfies are acts of aggressive compliance, telling both everything and nothing about me. They create a barrage of public information so vast that it is little more than noise — data camouflage that affords me a relatively anonymous life.
On a far broader scale, the millions of selfies taken each day (if not each hour) blur the vision of watchful governments. With the widespread use of digital tools, we have perhaps as many producers of information on the planet as we have consumers. The collection of data, generated at an ever-increasing rate, is no longer as important as the overwhelming task of analyzing everything that is archived. People maintain privacy by living publicly.
Conflicts have often midwifed new artistic expression: World War I and Dadaism, World War II and abstract expressionism, Vietnam and pop art. Today, “selfism” is following in these revered footsteps. It’s no coincidence, I would argue, that many selfies imitate the vantage point of security cameras: taken from a high angle, looking down at the subject, as though from a lens suspended in the corner of a room. The post-9/11 era is shaping an art form that can both acknowledge and resist governments’ overreach into private lives.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of FP magazine under the title “Hidden in Plain Sight.”
is an artist who examines issues of surveillance, citizenship, and migration. His work has been presented at major exhibition venues worldwide, and he has spoken at the Tate Modern and the World Economic Forum. An associate professor of art at the University of Maryland, he was recently named a 2016 Guggenheim fellow.