“From the very beginning of her career,” writes Arthur Lubow, of Diane Arbus, “she was taking photographs to obtain a vital proof — a corroboration of her own existence. The pattern was set early. When she was 15, she described to a friend how she would undress at night in her lit bathroom and watch an old man across the courtyard watch her (until his wife complained). She not only wanted to see, she needed to be seen.”
The bathroom was a camera, in which the girl composed an image of herself, fixed in light, for the audience, the other, to see. But was it really a corroboration of her existence that she sought, or its annihilation? Existence is continuous, unrelenting. The fixed image, the discrete image, offers an escape from the flux. The camera never lies, but the truth it tells is not of this world.
A social medium is, in a sense, a camera, a room in which we compose ourselves for the other’s viewing. The stream may feel unrelenting as it pours through the phone, but it’s not continuous. It’s a series of fixed and discrete images, delivered visually or textually. It’s a film.
“She not only wanted to see, she needed to be seen.”
Social media, writes Rob Horning, can “facilitate an escapism through engagement.” He argues, drawing on Roy Baumeister’s 1988 Journal of Sex Research paper “Masochism as Escape from Self,” that social-media use can be considered a form of masochism. The self-construction that takes place on a network like Facebook or Snapchat is a mask for self-destruction. “It might seem weird to say that we express ourselves to escape ourselves. But self-expression can dissolve the self as well as build some enduring, legible version of a self.” And: “The platform’s constrictions take on the function of bondage, restricting autonomy to a limited set of actions.”
Arbus understood the paradox of overexposure — how, when carried to an extreme, exposure begins to erase the self. In the confines of a camera, light dissolves individuality; it’s disfiguring.
Image: Kris Haamer.