Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Narcissus with a smartphone

Photographer Louis De Belle  likes to make the form of his monographs reflect what is meaningful about their content and with “Crowd” the challenge he faced was how a photobook about the taking of selfies could best be presented.


  Sean Sheehan


“Since my first book I’ve always tried to create a strong connection between the content of the book and the way it was produced, through paper, printing and binding techniques. “Failed dioramas” was about stuffed animals lying between boxes in an abandoned apartment so the book was printed on cardboard paper.

“Besides faith”was about Italy’s biggest religious trade fair, so we printed the book on golden paper. “Disappearing objects” was about magic tricks, so we hid the photographs between the pages of a fiction story.”

He succeeds with “Crowd” by bringing to our attention the essential sense of theatricality in the selfie-taker’s mind.

There is always an audience, either other people who see the selfie on social media or the selfie-taker who wants to see themselves in a certain way.

Visitors invade Italian cities like Rome, Milan and Venice and De Belle photographs them taking photos of themselves. We see them holding their smartphones aloft in acts of self-homage, even if the picture is posted online for others, or passively gazing into the lens as one might do in front of a mirror.

Reflexivity is at work in “Crowd” in a way that goes beyond the obvious meta- dimension. A fast exposure time and a portable flash are deployed to catch moments of self-performance.

The theatricality at work appears on the pages of De Belle’s book by surrounding the selfie-taker them in blackness; little else matters but the act of trying to see oneself as one would like to be seen. Any peripherals in the pictures – handbags, backpacks, earbuds, an occasional umbrella, ice cream or water bottle – are contingent. Nothing should be a distraction from a very private moment of immersion in the self; paintings of Narcissus come to mind.

Perhaps it is not immersion but a search for identity. For the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the subject’s search for an illusionary wholeness is potentially traumatic because there is always something missing, an incompleteness robbing it of any self-transparent consistency. The selfie delivers the deep wish for a warranted satisfaction in their being – and it is only an arm’s length away – a selfish act which, requiring no background, is not provided with one by De Belle. My desire is to be desired by the Other, to establish what they desire me for, but looking intently at photos of myself in the hope of an answer seems to be a hopeless exercise.

There are other reasons for taking selfies. It can be social, recording oneself with friends or family in a particular setting, but De Belle shows us Narcissus brought out of classical mythology and placed in a crowd with a smartphone.

“Crowd” by Louis DeBelle is published by Bruno Books.

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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