Show Me Who You Are

Today the Spanish press is reporting on a new exhibition that has opened at the Fine Arts Museum in the Basque city of Vitoria, showcasing 100 years of photography from Vanity Fair magazine on the occasion of that publication’s centenary. Examining the work of seminal photographers like Edward Steichen and Man Ray, as well as contemporary fashion and portrait photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber, the show displays images of some of the most famous people in the world, including one of my favorite pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan, dancing, taken by Scottish photographer Harry Benson at The White House in 1985. While the show itself is interesting, as is the exhibition catalogue that accompanies it, the subject gives us a chance to reflect on the issue of how we choose to be shown in social media, and by which I hope to encourage the creativity of my readers.

It is difficult, though technically not impossible, to be active online these days and not have at least one image of yourself attached to your online presence. At a very basic level, email providers like Gmail ask you to upload a thumbnail image for your account, which will then appear attached to your emails, online comments, and in programs like GChat. The generally accepted term for this image, as you probably know, is an “avatar”, though it may be be called other things as well. On Twitter, for example, most users refer to such an image as one’s “AVI”, while on Facebook it is commonly referred to as one’s “Profile Picture”.

Some people are reluctant to use an image of themselves online, for various reasons. They may be worried that others will be less inclined to communicate with them given their appearance. Or they may worry that they are posting on matters which could get them into trouble, if their personal opinions were to become widely known. In these cases people will turn to various types of avatars to represent them – anything from a cartoon character to a still from a film to an inanimate object, whereby they can have an image that others will associate with their account, but still be able to maintain some degree of anonymity online. Other users of course are quite the reverse of this, and relish putting up new avatars depicting themselves in real life whenever a new, good one comes along; I even keep a small but growing list on Twitter of friends who have excellent AVI’s, whether static or frequently updated.

An interesting point for us to consider is that the concept of the avatar is by no means a new one, when it comes to trying to put across a public image. Portraiture is, of course, the most obvious example of this: busts of the ruling emperor were displayed all over the Roman world, and paintings of the reigning monarch are still displayed in public buildings of modern monarchies such as Spain and Great Britain. Bees were carved on buildings in Paris to represent Napoleon Bonaparte, while the same animal depicted the Barberini Popes in Rome.  With the advent of modern telecommunications and print media, it is difficult not to know who the important people are, because their faces appear in front of us all the time, but the tradition still remains, even in this country where photographs of the sitting President are displayed at government offices from cabinet level all the way down to small, local post offices.

All of that being said, most of us have not achieved such a level of fame as to be able to symbolize ourselves through the use of a single object, like Napoleon Bonaparte’s bee or Mick Jagger’s lips. We need to attach our mug to our accounts, because we are normal people, and normal people still need to see each other and look each other in the eye, in order to be able to effectively communicate. While the avatar is, of course, nothing more than some data, it still provides the reader of our communications with the idea that they are speaking to another human being, with good points and bad points just the same as their own.  True, probably most of us are reluctant to put up any old picture of ourselves, but it always surprises me how often very interesting people have such poorly chosen, or completely non-representational avatars.

We ought to have some fun with the image we choose to display. The idea that it is better to look out at the world via your online avatar does not mean that you are limited to the straight-forward, full face portrait photo. There are plenty of times of year – Halloween, Christmas, weddings, etc. – when we may choose to dress up, in either the stylish or the costume sense, and these can be occasions for creating avatars in which either we look like ladies and gentlemen, or where we show that we can have some fun, and not take ourselves too seriously.

Chances are, if you are reading this post, you are not a head of state, a pop star, or a major celebrity. With all due respect to those of you who are – and please let me know how on earth you found your way to this blog – your choice of avatar is important not because you have a public image to protect, but rather because you want to connect to other people.  A well-chosen avatar gives those of us who interact with you a window onto what sort of person you are in real life, and it may make the difference between whether you are someone we will want to meet, or someone we keep at arm’s length.

Rather then being something that you should fret over, picking an avatar that actually shows you, instead of someone or something else, gives the impression that you are approachable, and straightforward, instead of someone hiding behind a mask. It can express your humor, your creativity, your personality, and so on.  Yet it must be said, at least from my perspective if no one else’s, that if you are not willing to stand behind your thoughts and opinions by connecting your actual image to them when you post on blogs and social media, then perhaps cyberspace is not really the best place for you.


Part of the “Vanity Fair 100 Years: Masters of Photography” exhibition
Museo de Bellas Artes, Vitoria

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