Shades of Jane Austen’s Emma: The art of the Facebook photo pose

This piece was inspired by the Facebook Profile of a beautiful and rich young lady for whom, in order to protect her privacy, I have chosen the pseudonym of EmmaFB (After the title character in Jane Austen’s Emma). When I first started investigating her Facebook, there were 468 tagged pictures of her. A few months later, she was tagged in 317 photos. She had untagged herself or deleted (if the photographs were in her own albums) over 100 pictures of herself in that time period.

Roland Barthes, the famous linguist, semiotician and photo connoisseur, writes extensively on the moment of posing in his classic book Camera Lucida: “I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: I feel the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice…”

This is certainly a sentiment with which most people who have had photographs of themselves with sweaty underarms or with an unflattering grimace posted on Facebook can identify; the photograph has “mortified” their body. When a picture is taken for Facebook, the image on Facebook is in everyone’s mind’s eye while posing. After the photos are taken the posers run to the camera to make sure that a photograph where the body is “mortified” is deleted before it can be uploaded. Pictures that one has been tagged in are constantly checked, (as EmmaFB’s discrepancy in tagged photo numbers proves) to avoid this mortification. In a study investigating the Facebook behaviour of London-based students, the female respondents admitted to untagging themselves in unflattering photos, whereas the male respondents felt that untagging themselves in such photos was “unwarranted vanity”.

In a personal interview with EmmaFB about her Facebook behaviour, I asked her if she knows about all the photos of herself; “I think I know what’s up there”, she says, and continues that she wants to know what other people would see. From our conversation it seems that one can know each and every picture of oneself, even if there are more than 300 of them! She freely refers to specific photos, and also seems to know who took each and every one of them.

In all of these photos, she looks the same. She is smiling and happy, no matter at what age and with whom she is portrayed. If there are any photographs on Facebook of her not looking happy, she certainly is not tagged in them. Like Austen’s Emma, keeping up the proper pleasant appearance seems to be of utmost importance. In many of the photos she is being embraced by girl friends. But there are as many photos of her with her arm loosely around the shoulders of friends of both sexes, which seems to imply a platonic friendship. In photos with her boyfriend, she still has the same smile, often his expression looks sexy or sultry, but the only difference in her pose is that her hand is placed on his chest, instead of being casually flung around a shoulder. Other photos depict her being kissed on the cheek by a girl friend. There are many photos of groups of girls tightly hugging each other while smiling or pouting. In fact, I would argue that the pout has Facebook to thank for it being the most popular expression in the history of womankind. These groups of girls often position themselves at an angle towards the camera, a bare shoulder pointing forward, with their cheeks closely pressed together. EmmaFB’s posing rules seem to be eye contact with the camera, a friend at hand to engage affectionately with, and the ever-present bright smile.

She tells me her favourite photo is the one of her and her whole family on a boat in Greece. She and three young family members are portrayed on a speed boat on an azure ocean. They are all dressed in bathing suits, showing off their perfect bodies and tans, and have turned around to look at the photographer, at whom they are smiling and waving. According to her, this photo reminds her of time spent with her family. To me, it looks like something that could have been published in Vanity Fair magazine.

Barthes says “…the Photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity”

This quote reinforces my suspicion that in posing for Facebook photographs one attempts to create for oneself a character, and not a true representation of one’s identity. Posing for a Facebook photo has become an essential ingredient in the young person’s repertoire of social skills. And embracing a friend with one arm, while holding a digital camera with the other to capture the moment, is a skill that needs some practice to perfect.

EmmaFB readily admits that she has become more aware of posing. She explains that some people always look good to her on Facebook, but that she has a very pretty friend who always slouches in Facebook pictures, which causes her to look so much worse than in reality, so she has become more aware of her own poses. In studying all her photos it is clear that she is posing in every single one, even in the ones from primary school. Mostly it’s a “natural” pose, looking straight ahead into the camera and smiling brightly.

Barthes proclaims: “I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but… this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality…”

The typical poses on Facebook are mostly in complete acknowledgement of the viewer; one knows that one is posing for the benefit of one’s entire Friends list. The Friends know you were posing for them, therefore eye contact with the camera is the norm, as well as poses that play up to set expectations, for example hugging one’s friends, blowing kisses, or pulling faces. From EmmaFB’s photos and poses, it does not seem as if her individuality as a character is as important to her (as it was to Barthes) as her being accepted by her social group. The consistent portrayal as a beautiful, sweet and popular girl is all this lady needs.



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