Selfies and Purikura as Affective, Aesthetic Labor

  • Mette Sandbye


Is the selfie a sign of conformity, narcissism, and adjustment to a group mentality and to a machine-produced, highly stereotypical imagery circulating in contemporary consumer society? Or is it the opposite: Can we speak of a free, creative, even transgressive play with identity, gender, sexuality, and the body? These dual, opposing approaches seem to characterize much of the discussion on the phenomenon. The aim of this chapter is to bridge this duality or, rather, approach the issue from a different angle, by looking at the selfie as—using a phrase by Raymond Williams—a “structure of feeling.” The selfie is a multiple, not fully demarcabable term that therefore needs to be both contextualized and studied in its specific subgenres. By narrowing the focus to a precursor and a subgenre of the selfie, the Japanese purikura, the chapter explores the social value of this kind of photography and the kind of emotional affect it produces. In doing so it draws on thinkers in recent Postfeminist as well as Affect Studies who have turned their interest toward “positive affect and the politics of good feeling,” as Sara Ahmed has put it. Therefore, the chapter looks at the selfie as an aesthetic expression of affect and argues for an open and dialectical approach to popular photography genres such as the selfie with regard to both the stereotypical and the liberating aspects of vernacular self-portraiture. The main argument posits the selfie—via its sub- or sister category, purikura—as a form of productive, affective, aesthetic labor or performative world making in today’s postmodern, capitalist, high-tech-dominated consumer society.


  1. Acocella, Joan. 2014. Selfie. How Big a Problem Is Narcissism?, May 12. Accessed December 30, 2015.
  2. Ahmed, Sara. 2010. Happy Objects. In The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 29–51. London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Barthes, Roland. (1980) 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.Google Scholar
  4. Burns, Anne. 2015. Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice. International Journal of Communication 9: 1716–1733. Scholar
  5. Carr, David. 2015. Selfies on a Stick, and the Social-Content Challenge for the Media., January 4. Accessed December 30, 2015.
  6. Carville, Justin. 2007. ‘My Wallet of Photographs’: Photography, Ethnography and Visual Hegemony in John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands. Irish Journal of Anthropology 10 (1): 5–11.Google Scholar
  7. Chalfen, Richard, and Mai Murui. 2004. Print Club Photography in Japan: Framing Social Relationships. In Photographs. Objects. Histories. On the Materiality of Images, ed. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, 166–185. New York, NY: Routledge. [Orig. published 2001 in Visual Sociology 16 (1): 55–77].Google Scholar
  8. Debord, Guy. (1967) 1990. The Society of the Spectacle. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  9. Foster, Hal. 1996. The Return of the Real. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  10. Frosh, Paul. 2015. The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability. International Journal of Communication 9: 1607–1628. Scholar
  11. Gómez Cruz, Edgar, and Helen Thornham. 2015. Selfies Beyond Self-representation: The (theoretical) F(r)ictions of a Practice. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 7 (1): 1–10. Scholar
  12. Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Gunthert, André. 2013. Les autoportraits d’Hippolyte Bayard. L’Atelier des icônes—Le carnet de recherche d’André Gunthert, December 3. Accessed September 16, 2016.
  14. Houghton, David, Adam Joinson, Nigel Caldwell, and Ben Marder. 2013. Tagger’s Delight? Disclosure and Liking in Facebook: The Effects of Sharing Photographs Amongst Multiple Known Social Circles. Discussion Paper. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
  15. Lasén, Amparo. 2015. Digital Self-Portraits, Exposure and the Modulation of Intimacy. In Mobile and Digital Communication: Approaches to Public and Private, ed. José Ricardo Carvalheiro and Ana Serrano Tellería, 61–78. Covilhã: LabCom. Scholar
  16. Matsui, Midori. 2005. Beyond the Pleasure Room to a Chaotic Street. Transformations of the Cute Subculture in the Art of the Japanese Nineties. In Little Boy. The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, ed. Takashi Murakami, 209–239. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Michelsen, Anders, and Frederik Tygstrup. 2015. Introduction. In Socioaesthetics. Ambience—Imaginary, ed. Anders Michelsen and Frederik Tygstrup, 1–24. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  18. Miller, Laura. 2003. Graffiti Photos: Expressive Art in Japanese Girls’ Culture. Harvard Asia Quarterly 7 (3): 31–42.Google Scholar
  19. ———. 2005. Bad Girl Photography. In Bad Girls of Japan, ed. Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley, 127–141. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Murray, Derek Conrad. 2015. Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of Selfies in the Age of Social Media. Consumption Markets & Culture 18 (6): 490–516. Scholar
  21. Ngai, Sianne. 2007. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. ———. 2012. Our Aesthetic Categories. Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Oxford Dictionaries. 2013. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 Selfie. (Press Release—Word of the Year), November 19. Accessed August 30, 2016.
  24. Pellicer, Raynald. 2011. Photobooth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.Google Scholar
  25. Sandbye, Mette. 2013. The Family Photo Album as Transformed Social Space in the Age of “Web 2.0.” In Throughout. Art and Culture Emerging with Ubiquitous Computing, ed. Ulrik Ekman, 103–118. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  26. ———. 2014a. Looking at the Family Photo Album. A Resumed Theoretical Discussion of Why and How. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 6.
  27. ———. 2014b. Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography. In Digital Snaps. The New Face of Photography, ed. Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye, 109–130. London: I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  28. Senft, Theresa, and Nancy Baym. 2015. What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon. Introduction. International Journal of Communication 9: 1588–1606. Scholar
  29. Silverman, Kaja. 1996. The Threshold of the Visible World. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
  31. Steinmetz, Katy. 2012. Top 10 Everything of 2012. Top 10 Buzzwords. 9. Selfie., December 4. Accessed March 7, 2017.
  32. The Public Domain Review. 2013. Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait: The First Ever “Selfie” (1839). Accessed July 16, 2016.
  33. Thrift, Nigel. 2010. Understanding the Material Practices of Glamour. In The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 289–308. London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Williams, Raymond. 1977. Structures of Feeling. In Marxism and Literature, 128–135. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mette Sandbye
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

Personalised recommendations