The Gestural Image

Frosh, Paul (2015) ‘The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability’, International Journal of Communication 9: 1607–28


The selfie is the progeny of digital networks. Its distinctiveness from older forms of self-depiction seems to derive from non-representational changes: innovations in distribution, storage, and metadata that are not directly concerned with the production or aesthetic design of images.

Instantaneous distribution of an image via Instagram and similar social networks is what makes the phenomenon of the selfie significantly different from its earlier photographic precursors.

[…] the immediacy, ephemerality, and incessant performativity of contemporary everyday photographs are primarily explained with reference to the combined ubiquity, mobility, and connectivity of smartphone devices.

Once nonrepresentational technological changes are made analytically preeminent, what role remains for an aesthetically oriented and medium-specific intellectual tradition like photography theory?


[…] the recent prominence of nonrepresentational practices echoes a recurrent tension of photography theory that has long divided scholars: an ontological commitment to the (largely semiotic) “essence” of the medium, which tends to privilege the discrete photographic image as an object of aesthetic analysis, versus historical conceptualizations of photography as a fluctuating constellation of devices, material cultural practices and respresentational forms.

Understanding that a particular image is a selfie (rather than just a photograph of, say, a face) requires viewers to make inferences about the nondepictive technocultural conditions in which the image was made. It requires, among other things, that these viewers have been adequately socialized through having seen, taken, or heard tell of selfies.

The selfie prompts us to ask how it can be explained using concepts fashioned to illuminate the traditional aesthetics of photography and how it might configure these concepts to forge new directions for theorizing both photography and digital culture.

[…] selfies conspicuously integrate still images into a technocultural circuit of corporeal social energy that I will call kinaesthetic sociability. This circuit connects the bodies of individuals, their mobility through physical and informational spaces, and the micro-bodily hand and eye movements they use to operate digital interfaces.


[regarding the selfie and indexicality]

Given this intellectual commotion, what can we learn from the selfie about photographic indexicality that has not already been said? Two things: first, that the selfie as an index is less a trace of a reality imprinted on the photograph than of an action enacted by a photographer; second, that the selfie exploits in favor of connective performance rather than semantic reference.

Like much everyday digital photography, the selfie tips the balance between these forms of indexicality. The advent of photography as a “live” medium, using digital networks to connect interlocuters in space rather than time, brings it closer to a conversational practice that draws images and their referents into the immediate moment of discursive interaction (which applications like Whatsapp and especially Snapchat both promote and exploit).

The selfie is a form of relational positioning between the bodies of the viewed and the viewers in a culture of individualized mobility, where one’s “here” and another’s “there” are mutually connected but perpetually shifting. It continually remolds an elastic, mediated spatial envelope for corporeal sociability.


[The selfie] points to the performance of a communicative action rather than to an object, and is a trace of that performance.

These arms assume the role of the pointing finger: They implictly designate the absent hands and their handheld devices as the site of pictorial production.


The body is inscribed in part into an already existing order of interpersonal signification – gestures have meanings in face-to-face interactions – but it is also inscribed as a figure for mediation itself: 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).

One key feature of conventional photographic composition that has remained relatively unchanged across the analog-digital divide is the spatial separation between photographed objects and the photographer’s body.

Taking a conventional photograph means, as a rule, not being in it.

Traditional camera design and use – of both analogue and digital devices – means that the camera is not just a machine for making pictures; it is also a barrier between visible photographed spaces and undepicted locations of photographing and viewing.


Three features of smartphone design enable the selfie to challenge this spatio-representational segregation: They can be held and operated relatively easily by one hand, they display an image of the pre-photographic scene large enough to be viewed at arm’s length, and they include front- and back-facing cameras.


The space of photographic production or enunciation is effortlesslyunified with the space of the picture itself, and not photographing oneslef as part of an event or scene becomes an aesthetic, social, political, and moral choicerather than a sin qua non of the photographic act.

The camera becomes literally incorporated, part of a hand-camera assemblage whose possibilities and limitations are mutually determined by technical photographic parameters (available light, field of view, angle, etc) and the physical potential and constraints of the human body.

The most important embodied constellation consists of (1) moving one’s outstretched arm holding the smartphone or tablet at a calculated angle before the face or body, (2) the sensorimotor coadjustment of those body parts that are to be photographed (frequently the face and neck), and (3) the visual and spatial coordination of these two in composing the image to be taken via the device’s screen.

No longer does [compose] refer to the arrangement of elements in a representation who origin it hides; now it refers to the act of posing together, mutually emplacing the photographing body and the depicted figure.


The dominant figuration of the body shifts from the still, invisibly directed pose of others in traditional everyday photography to the dynamic, visible, self-animated gestural action of limbs and faces in selfies.


[referring to two images]

These athletic examples remind us that taking selfies is not natural to the body: it is an acquired skill and requires practice, the attainment of limbic and manual dexterity (activating the right button or icon to take the picture while often holding the device at extreme angles to maximise headspace), and the calibration of the body to the technical affordances and desirable representational outcomes.

The selfie is both expressive and disciplinary: This is the duality of most kinds of sensory inscription. Just as the moving body is the platform for the smartphone, so the device is the picturing agency that motivates, justifies and disciplines the body’s performance.


Yet that gesture not only composes technicity and embodiment in the moment of image production; it also constitutes a deictic movement of the body that draws attention to the immediate context of image viewing and to the activity of a viewer.


[…] the outstretched arm (or prosthetic stick mount) doesn’t just show the photographer depicting himself. It also draws the viewer in as a gesture of inclusion, inviting you to look, be with, and act.


Rather than forming a barrier between photographer and viewed, the smartphone camera produces a reflective image for beholding oneself, resembling nothing as much as a pocket make-up mirror.


[citing work in neurology and psychology]

Put very crudely, responses to representations are built upon embodied simulation of what is shown: neurological or unconscious mental processes that perform bodily and sensory limitations, as it were, offline.


The selfie invites viewers, in turn, to make conspicuously communicative, gestural responses. Sometimes, viewers respond to selfies in kind, taking reactive selfies that themselves summon further response. Here sensorimotor mirroring is almost literally achieved. In most cases, however, the action is displaced into other physical movements that execute operations – “like,” “retweet,” “comment,” – via the social media platforms on which the selfies are seen.

Like the selfie, such operations are also performed through sensorimotor actions that are semiconscious yet habitual to the degree that we might even call them “reflex”: fingers swiping and tapping apps on touchscreens or scrolling, moving, and clicking a mouse attached to a desktop computer.

As a gestural image, then, the selfie inscribes one’s own body into new forms of mediated, expressive sociability with distant others. these are incarnated in a gestural economy of affection as the reflex bodily responses by which we interact with our devices and their interfaces: the routinely dexterous movements of our hands and eyes.


Response is crucial. Phatic exchanges stage sociability as a binding affective energy transferred between individuals in interpersonal settings, and response is an embodied social reflex – it is hard not to perform it.

The selfie is a preeminent conductor of embodied social energy because it is a kinesthetic image: it is a product of kinetic bodily movement; it gives aesthetic, visible form to that movement in images; and it is inscribed in the circulation of kinetic and responsive social energy among users of movement-based digital technologies.

[…] the selfie makes visible a broader kinesthetic domain of digital culture that is relatively overlooked as an object of analysis.