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The Public Profile of An American Girl

Photographer Jenna Garrett turns the ubiquitous selfie into a visual discourse at Aperture Summer Open

by Nara Shin in Culture on 18 July 2014

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As of September 2013, Facebook reported that 350 million new photos were uploaded each day—and Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities dictates that under the public setting anyone can access and use that information. Raising questions about privacy, internet behavior, self-exploitation and more, photographer Jenna Garrett sifts through the intangible number of publicly available images on Facebook for her series "The Public Profile of An American Girl" (part of a larger Public Profile Project).

Organizing photos into specific themes that repeatedly pop up on social media, such as "Licking My Friend," "The Face," "Car Self Portrait" and "Gang Sign"—and presenting them in installation form—Garrett makes viewers uncomfortable about images they're already so used to seeing. Garrett isn't shaming the young women taking selfies in nearly identical poses; instead, she points the finger at us—the spectator, the member of society—asking how this cultural phenomenon came to exist in the online realms. And it's not just limited to photos, as Garrett shows in her video piece "Pretty / Ugly," a thought-provoking collage of girls aged 10-14 asking the camera—aka the YouTube community—if they are pretty.

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"I've collected almost 5,000 Facebook images and counting for this particular project, all from photographs labeled 'public' on Facebook," Garrett tells CH. "It's very important to me that the work be viewed as an installation—there is something really visceral about seeing 500 images of people licking one another. So much of what we do online feels intangible—people post photos, share their entires lives and say so many things without so much as a thought. Making images online a physical thing (public images that anyone could stumble upon and see) changes the dynamic entirely."

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In this project, Garrett steps away from her usual position behind the camera; instead working with found images, which is also telling of how the role of the photographer has shifted and expanded as the medium has become chiefly digital.

It feels half anthropological and half my own attempt to understand something as vast as social behavior online.

"Taking my own photos versus collecting other people's images is different, but the way I think about them is really quite similar. When I take a photo, I've seen something or have something in mind I want to capture. The end result, no matter how well-planned, always surprises me and is what keeps me coming back," she tells CH. "Collecting found imagery works a lot the same way—I am gathering things that I see, things that jump out at me. I am trying to interpret what I am looking at and gain a better understanding. And again, the end result is always a little surprising."

"With The Public Profile Project, I suppose I see it as a bit of art and a bit of curation," she continues. "I set up rules for myself when searching for images and abide by them. My presentation of this mass of chaos is where the 'art' comes in. It feels half anthropological and half my own attempt to understand something as vast as social behavior online."

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It's crucial to read images contextually and try to sift through the overwhelming amount of photos we are exposed to daily.

"Although I love taking photos, I'm interested in imagery itself and the way it can communicate," Garrett notes. "Photos are fascinating, whether they are taken on a large-format film camera or snapped quickly with an iPhone. They all mean something. There was a reason why someone took them, no matter how banal that reason is. More so now than ever, it's crucial to read images contextually and try to sift through the overwhelming amount of photos we are exposed to daily. Otherwise it's all a blur of very loud visual noise." Gathering these seemingly innocent self-portraits and bombarding the viewer with all of them at once, Garrett's photographic series is dry kindle for a fiery discussion on self-expression and our online identities.

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Some 200 photos from the photographer's "Licking My Friend" series (printed at 5x5 inches) will be featured in Aperture's first ever Summer Open—an open-call exhibition that focuses on the theme of photography itself, with executive director Chris Boot whittling the submissions down to 96 photographers.

Aperture Summer Open (free to the public) is open now and will run through 14 August 2014 at the Aperture Gallery, located at 547 West 27th Street, New York, NY.

Images courtesy of Jenna Garrett

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