How we pose in photographs: hand signs and cultural differences
One of the highlights for me from the Association of Internet Researchers conference (#IR15) in South Korea last week was the extra-curricular learning. About many things, but in this post let me focus on what I learnt about selfie culture and visual, digital self-representations. I watched how people use selfie sticks and learnt how to use one myself. I got to see Seoul through the eyes of k-pop fan Kristine Ask, who could explain all the cardboard cutouts of ridiculously good-looking young men outside the cosmetics stores and the lengthy schooling that goes into the very media-convergent profession of k-pop star. And as we sung karaoke into the night Crystal Abidin, an expert on Asian commercial blogging, taught us how to take selfies with the appropriate hand signs. Here is a video she sent us showing a whole pile of “cute” hand signs (cuteness or Kawaii as the Japanese call it is important throughout Asia) demonstrated by a cute Australian girl lip-syncing to a Korean song.
I started thinking about the many different ways in which we pose for the camera. Pierre Bourdieu writes a bit in Photography: A Middle-brow Art about how important it is to pose when somebody takes your photo. It’s a way of acknowledging the ritual. Even the way we tend to face the camera is part of this ritual:
Honour demands that one pose for the photograph as one would stand before a man who one respects and from whom one expects respect, face on, one’s forehead held high and one’s head straight. (page 82)
So the way you pose for a photograph is a way of establishing a relationship with the viewer. Your pose says something about how you relate to the viewer and how you expect the viewer to relate to you.
Obviously the way we pose for portraits and for selfies has changed over time – just think of the stiffness of Victorian portraits (although there are also examples of very irreverent Victorian portraits). When we see an old portrait where the subject poses in what we think of as a modern way – as in the photobooth portraits I wrote about a few months ago,
There are also cultural differences in how we pose. Some are geographic, as the cuteness hand signs in Asian culture. Showing the v-sign when someone takes your photo or in a selfie is pretty constant in Korea, it seems (and there’s a whole history to it), but not so common here in Norway. Here’s a list of 29 ways to use your hands to look cute, or kawaii. These US hand signs as explained to mothers of teenagers are clearly very different from the Asian hand signs. Rude seems more the goal than cute. THere’s also the suburban gang sign thing that goes on in some US photos, though it’s often unclear whether people in the photos actually intend their hand signs to be gang signs or just think they look cool.
You can find lessons too. Here’s a tutorial clearly aimed at people outside of Asia who want to learn how to do cute Asian poses:
I’m wondering about what other styles of pose there are. In Chicago I noticed another kind of posing where you twist your hips for full body shots in what to me looks like the style of a photo model. Sort of like the fashion poses sketched below. These poses were being struck almost identically by women and children alike. I wonder whether this is a more Hispanic style of posing, or perhaps it’s simply inspired by fashion shoots and, for children perhaps, by shows like Toddlers and Tiaras.
Obviously I pose in a culturally specific way just as anyone else does. Some of my pose is about trying to look as “beautiful” as possible and to hide features I dislike, which is probably a pretty universal drive behind poses. Over time I’ve learnt some ways of smiling and holding my chin that work better than others in the hide-the-imperfection game, although I constantly make mistakes and end up hating the photo anyway. I often wonder what to do with my hands, so having some hand signs might help – but unless done with mock irony with other selfie scholars I worry they would make me seem unprofessional. And there’s such an uneasy balance between trying to make my photos seem professional yet hip, serious yet approachable. I usually fail 😉
It’s harder for me to see the cultural specificity of the way I pose though. We (as in the group of people I try to fit in with – mid-career Westerners? Mothers who like technology? Blogging academics? How to define “we”?) say “cheese” and smile and look straight at the camera. We don’t do hand signs, unless they are ironic. We try to act “natural” while clearly acknowledging the camera. I will have to watch “us” more to learn more.
If you know more about poses and hand signs for portraits and selfies around the world I’d love to hear about it. And if some scholar somewhere has actually done research on this, please let me know!
Update: This post by Jolynna Sinanan on posing in Instagram photos in Trinidad and the UK is very closely related to the thoughts in this blog post – go read it!