What Does the Baby Selfie Say? Seeing Ways of ‘Self-Seeing’ in Infant Digital Cultures

Bryoni Trezise



When a baby girl born in Britain was endowed with the topical name ‘Hashtag’, a social media post decried the naming, and a media storm followed. Before she was even home from hospital, headlines were at the ready: “Did a mother really just name her child Hashtag?” (Nye) and “Baby Hashtag: has the search for original names gone too far?” (Barkham). Trollers were also poised to react, offering: “The first name is REALLY dumb. And you're even dumber,” prompting a rejection of the baby’s name as well as her ostensibly ill-equipped parents (Facebook). Dubbed a “Public Figure” on her Facebook page, Hashtag Jameson accrued a particularly premature type of celebrity, where, with a handful of baby selfies, she declared via Twitter, and only hours after birth, that she was “already trending”.

In this article, I consider the relationship between the infant child and the visual-digital economies in which it – as in the Hashtag hoax, above – performs. The infant child is brought into view with the very first sentence that frames John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. “Seeing comes before words”, he writes. “The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (1). Berger’s reference to the seeing child positions it as an active agent in cultures and practices of visuality, but also uses an idea of the child to position vision as the primary communicative means by which we “establish our place in the surrounding world” and in which we are enveloped “before” speech (7). Here, I explore the intensified relationship between the visual culture of infancy and the economised digital movement of vision that it produces in one highly specific image-genre: the baby selfie. In doing so I aim to characterise the depictive nature of this format in terms of how it compositionally documents – to further borrow the language of Berger, who was then discussing oil paintings – “a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange” (87).

The new sociology of childhood has been concerned with the construction of the child figure as it has interfaced with new cultural and political realities since the early 1980s (Prout). These include “phenomena such as the flexibilization of production … expanding networks of knowledge … and shifts in labour market participation, work and the global economy” (Prout 5). I suggest here that the baby selfie can be seen as an unprecedented social marker of these transformations, signalling a heightened degree of priceless sentiment within which the child – as an animator of amateur affects, viral tendencies and algorithmic logics – is given to operate. I focus on the compositional propensities of the baby selfie in order to characterise how it visually construes a particular kind of self that is intrinsically entangled with the conception of the image as a form of capital exchange. That is, I suggest that in its intense and yet paradoxical self-performativity the baby selfie depicts a way of seeing that is predicated on, but also troubles, the conceit of a commodified social relation. 

What Does the Baby Selfie Say?

“Should babies really be taking selfies?” yells a headline warning against the perceived dangers of youth digital cultures (Cox). The 2014 story references a phone app built by father Matthew Pegula that uses front-facing cameras to “unintentionally teac[h] your baby to take selfies of themselves” by generating “rattling sounds, pictures of cute animals, and more to get the baby’s attention.” The article explains that “[w]hen the baby reaches out to touch the screen, the camera snaps their selfie and saves it to the device”. While Pegula’s Baby Selfie App is available for purchase on Google Play’s app store for $1.09, a similar device named New Born Fame, featuring “Facebook and Twitter symbols that are activated when the youngster reaches for them” and inclusions such as “a pair of shoes with an internal pedometer that tracks kicks and posts the activity online, a squeezable GPS tracker and a ‘selfie-ball’ that photographs the baby and uploads the shot whenever the ball rotates” (Peppers), artistically interrogated this relatively new category of “insta-infa-fame”.

In their article “What Does the Selfie Say?”, Theresa M. Senft and Nancy K. Baym argue that the selfie exists as the hallmark genre of a new kind of self-reflexive image-making, one that is formally characterised by the “self-generated” nature of the photographic portraiture it depicts, which is in turn conceived for its transmissibility, occurring “primarily via social media” (1589). Popularised in part by new technologies (the camera phone, the smart phone, and then the front-facing phone camera) and in part by new digital platforms (“Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Tumblr, WeChat, and Tinder”) (1589), Senft and Baym further explain that the selfie is simultaneously a photographic object which transmits human feeling, a practice of sending (as well as of depicting), and third, a monetized assemblage curated by nonhuman agents. It is this last factor which renders the objecthood of the selfie as it relates to the vernacular that it enacts as well as the practice of its making, political.

Notions around the simultaneously constituting and yet virally distributed “self” of social media are not new. A now prominent literature around how the selfie graphically manifests and performs: intimate publics (Walsh and Baker), a normative or resistive image repertoire (Murray), and emotionalised, communicable affect (Bayer et al.), gives rise to a range of viewpoints that aim to characterise how the hyper self-reflexivity of the selfie depicts – visually as well as ontologically – the self as an agent of their own transmissibility (Holiday et al.). From these we understand that the selfie is distinct for its (i) self-representational image-format (it is an image made by the self, of the self, and thereby is identifiable for its capturing of the self in this very process of self-composition); ii) its methods of distribution (selfies are taken and distributed often instantaneously, and thereby are not only objects of, but active agents of, the reshaping of digitally communicative economies); iii) its idiomatic performance of a sociality and aesthetic of the amateur or vernacular (Abidin).

The doubled glance both inwards and outwards that the selfie casts is further characterised for how it traces as well as points to a gestural self-awareness held within its compositional characteristics (Frosh). This moves us from a semiotic reading of the selfie to a reading of its “kineasthetic sociability” – that is, its embodied inception of new forms of autobiographical inscription which say “not only ‘see this, here, now,’ but also ‘see me showing you me’” (Frosh 1609-10). Here, the selfie is less a static object and more a gestural imprint of the communicative action in process: it is “simultaneously mediating (the outstretched arm executes the taking of the selfie) and mediated (the outstretched arm becomes a legible and iterable sign within selfies of, among other things, the selfieness of the image)” (Frosh 1611). In this sense, its compositional logic offers a tracing of this very enactive, embodied tendency, which bears more than an indexical relationship to the field that it marks – it depicts itself as a constituting part of that field.

While these characteristics are broadly accepted as being true of selfies, the “selfieness” of a baby selfie might be seen to offer a paradoxical reframing of these depictive qualities. That is, if a selfie is a self-depiction of a process of self-depiction, the baby selfie most usually performs this self-reflexivity with recourse to an external agent who is either present in the image frame or who is occluded from it but nonetheless implied by the very nature of the image (a parent or the image-facilitator, or indeed, a baby app). The baby selfie’s scene of self-depiction, then, might be thought of as a kind of self-depiction-by-proxy. At the same time, the baby selfie asks us to invest in the belief that the picture was knowingly self-taken, and in doing so, models a kind of aspirational autonomy for the child/baby figure who is depicted. In this sense, the baby selfie, by its very nature, disrupts the accepted distinguishing format of the selfie: that the picture is both self-depicting and is self-composed. Instead, the baby selfie can be seen to gesturally reincorporate into its visual scene the very question of this structural im/possibility.

Depicting the Viral Child

The figure of the child has been considered by a range of theorists as the organising principle of modernity. Philippe Aries’ foundational work has argued that the modern discovery of childhood is reflected in the rise of the nuclear family and consequential shifts from sociability to privacy. Viviana Zelizer similarly positions the emergence of the economically “useless” but sentimentally “priceless” child against comprehensive social and industrial transformations taking place across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that excluded the child as a labourer and instead situated it with the disciplinary regime of education. The hetero-normatively white child has since been shown to emblematise concepts of social futurity (Edelman) and myths of morality, humanity and the “ordering of time” (Pelligrini 98).

Following Zelizer, the more recently ‘digitally’ visual cultures of childhood can be seen to spin the figure of the child around new socio-economic and discursive imperatives. Lisa Cartwright writes about photographs of waiting adoptee children, in which “children of poor countries become commodities and their images become advertisements in a global market” (83). Deborah Lupton similarly considers the coding of infant bodies in popular media for their “represent[ation] as helpless, vulnerable, uncontrolled, dirty and leaky in opposition to the idealised adult body that is powerful, self-regulated, autonomous, clean, its bodily boundaries sealed from the outside world” (349). More recently, children have been considered for how they either accidentally or volitionally interact with mediated technologies (Nansen) as well as for how they are increasingly digitally surveilled as the objects of a necessary – and increasingly normalised – parental “culture of care” (Leaver 2). These studies make clear that while children are increasingly positioned as the ‘viral’ agents of new kinds of visual markets, they are also infantilised as victims in need of unprecedented cyber-protection.

In 1994 Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “media virus” to account for the rapid and uncontrollable ways that popular media texts performed to either coerce or awaken viewing publics. While Rushkoff’s medium of reference was television, Henry Jenkins et al. later reframed virality to instead encompass ideas of user-led agency by linking it with a logic of “stickiness” – evoking what he termed a “peanut butter” analogy to describe the “spreadable” (3) movement of ideas in more recent social media practices. Indeed, Liam French finds a strong parallel between the “phenomenal rise in user generated content” and the turn towards newer visual cultures within social media practices more broadly, noting that it is “ordinary people” (French’s term) who actively generate the very forms of visual cultural production that become key to communicatory circulation. The selfie, in this regard, becomes both a format and an icon of the new ways of seeing brought into perspective by social media practices.

Given the political, social and industrial ecologies that constitute such image cultures, it is only recently that the “viral” child, as the next delineation of the sentimentally “priceless” child, has arrived into view. Here, the baby Hashtag hoax can be seen to critically narrate a specific cultural moment: one that is concerned with stabilising the figure of the child even as it constitutes the ground through which that figure also becomes undone. I refer to the way that Hashtag, as a figural baby, presents a tautological identity, where the digital grammar of # names the mechanism by which she would also search for herself. If Hashtag is emblematic of the algorithmic and affective assemblage of contemporary image-cultures of childhood – whose image-work shapes the new temporal dimensions of our watching and viewing practices – she also illustrates how the child has been become not only an object, but a medium of the economic logics of communicative capitalism. That is, the image-work of the baby selfie can be seen to point to the very question of autonomous agency that frames the figure of the child and in doing so, provides a disruptive counterpoint to the “peanut butter” logic of spreadable visual cultures of so-called “ordinary people” more broadly.

It is this light that I ask (drawing on Senft and Baym): what does the baby selfie say about how we understand or construe the figure of the child? More specifically, I ask (via Berger) what culture of vision is brought into view by the rise of such visual cultures of the viral child? 

The “Gestural Gaze” of Digital Infant Agency

Ellentv.com recently advertised a call for viewers to send in their favourite baby selfies: “If you've got a baby and a camera, it's time to take some selfies! Take a photo of you and your baby making the same face, and send it to us!”  The legal disclaimer accompanying the callout additionally advised that “[b]y submitting Materials, … you … do not violate the right of privacy or publicity of, or constitute a defamation against, any person or entity; that the Materials will not infringe upon or violate the copyright or common law rights or any other rights of any person or entity” (Ellentv.com). From the outset, there appears within baby selfie culture a curious calibration of the agency of the child, who is at once a selfie-self-taker but who is also excluded from a legal right to privacy that concerns “any person or entity”. In this respect we might further ask – following Jacqueline Bhabha’s question “what sort of human is a child?” (1526) – what sort of human is a viral child, and how does the baby selfie depict this paradoxical configuration of infantile agency?

While the formality of the baby selfie still demonstrates a range of configurations which often incorporate the figure of a parent and hence contradict the discreet self-composing parameters of the selfie, here I focus in closing on one specific baby selfie that I suggest is emblematic of an increasing prevalence of apparently “true” baby selfies which operate on a range of image-sharing platforms and meme sites. These baby selfies are distinguished by seeming to be (i) an image that is made by the self, of the self, and thereby is identified for its capturing of the self in this very process of self-composition; ii) an image that is construed for methods of often instantaneous distribution; iii) an image that puts forward an idiomatic performance of an amateur vernacular – or what Abidin has called “calibrated amateurism”.

One compilation, “12 of the Cutest Baby Selfies You Will Ever See”, foregrounds the autonomy of the figure of the viral child as depicted by baby selfie culture, explaining that “These babies might be small, but they can do a lot more than just laugh, crawl, and play. It turns out they can also work their way around a camera and snap some amazing selfies. Talk about impressive!” (Campbell). While all the images in the selection depict the embodied gestural sociality of the selfie that Frosh characterises – that which is “simultaneously mediating (the outstretched arm executes the taking of the selfie) and mediated (the outstretched arm becomes a legible and iterable sign within selfies of … the selfieness of the image)” (1611) – one in particular is arresting for its striking interpellation of the “innocent” figure of the child with what I will extend via Frosh to call the inherent mediality of her gestural gaze. In this iconic baby selfie, the gestural gaze is witnessed in the way that the baby’s outstretched hand seems to be extending towards us, the viewer, but is rather (we think we know) extended towards the phone camera, in order to better see herself.

The infant in the image is coded female, wearing a pink bonnet, dummy clip and dummy. The dummy is centred defiantly in the baby’s mouth and doubly defiantly in the centre of the image frame as an infantile ‘technology’ that seems to undercut the technology of the phone camera apparatus. The dummy imbues the image with an iconic sense of the baby’s innate “baby-ness” which seems to directly contradict the strength of her gaze, which also appears, in following the outwards arc of her selfie-taking arm, to reach beyond the image frame and address her viewer directly. It seems to say – to paraphrase Frosh – see me here, now, showing you me. The ambivalent origins of the image are also key to how it is read and distributed here. The image in question can be found on the media site Woman’s World, which offers an untraceable credit to Instagram for its original source. The image has also, since, spread itself, appearing across a range of other multilingual sites and feeds, depicting the child at the centre of its frame as somewhat entangled in a further labour of self-duplication. The baby selfie in circulation says not only “‘see this, here, now,’” and “‘see me showing you me’,” but ‘see all of this here, and again, here and again, here.’

John Berger writes of two related image genres that connect histories of vernacular depiction to histories of the evolution of the publicity image as a medium and sign of capital exchange. Writing on oil painting, he notes how the materiality of the medium signified the “thingness” of its depiction: “if you buy a painting you also buy a look of the thing that it represents” (83). He finds, therein, an “analogy between possessing and a way of seeing which is incorporated in oil painting” (83) and which, as he later explains, becomes tied to “the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts” (88). The textural qualities of oil painting, which for Berger construe the “real” as that which can be materially conveyed or indexed as commodity, might be compared to the gestural residue that is contained within the selfie. While oil painting construed the materiality of things – and hence, the commodifiable nature of any particular relation – the selfie might be seen to depict the self in the process of its own self-labour: the material gesture of taking the image necessitates that the self becomes an agent who then becomes the immaterial self of transmission. The selfie is in this way a depiction of the self in a form of capital relation to itself.

While the selfie – as a digital composition – is not materially “real” in the same way that oil painting is, the indexical nature of the arm that reaches out beyond the image frame to point to the inherent transmissibility – and hence capital value – of the image, might be. While the baby selfie imitates these capacities, I suggest here that it also traces a compositional logic that further complicates that which Frosh charts. This is because in the very moment that the spectator of the image is confronted with the baby selfie’s call to “see me showing you me” (1609-10), the spectator is also confronted with the figure of the infant as an autonomous agent capable of their own image-constitution. In essence, the baby selfie posits a question around the baby’s innate ability to knowingly generate its image-frame, even as that very image-frame is what casts the infant into the spreadable contexts within which it will then operate – or, indeed, become ‘knowable’.

In its heightened self-referentiality but tenuously depicted sense of rhetorical agency, the baby selfie then faces us with what we think we know, or do not know, about the figure of the child. This central ambivalence inherent to the compositional makeup of the baby selfie in this way both depicts and disrupts the economics of circulation that are intrinsic to selfies more broadly, pointing to a decomposing of the parameters by which a selfie is interpreted and understood. Further, it enables us to question relationships between ways of seeing and ways of being – how does the baby selfie envision the figure of the chid? What sort of human does it become? While there are valid discussions to be had around the absence of “direct self-representational agency” (Leaver) and moral rights or wrongs of the parental management of children’s image-work in online spaces, the baby selfie also opens up questions around how we understand the very contours of infantile agency, how we perceive rhetorical knowingness, and what we mean to mean by the relentless circulation of this imagery of the viral child. Indeed, as Wendy S. Hesford writes, it can be helpful to shift an understanding of agency from being an “individual enterprise” to being understood as that which is “enabled and constrained by cultural discourses and material forces” that compel it into material circulation (156).

Here, I am not aiming to foreclose debates about the role of infants (or children more broadly) living with and in digital cultures. Neither do I aim to cast judgement upon on those image practices which enfold child subjects within them. I rather aim to circumvent those important debates to find – following Berger – a trace of how the image cultures that co-constitute digital infancies operate to formulate as well as depict a new field of vision that is predicated upon a seemingly impossible but nonetheless compelling logic of the contradictory impulses of the viral child. That is, it challenges us to think more carefully about what we think we know about children as well as about how we come to know them.


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The child, viral, digital, selfie, baby

Copyright (c) 2017 Bryoni Trezise

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