A blonde person lies in bed under white bedsheets, on their side with their back to the camera.

The art of the faceless selfie

The Instagram fans among you will be all too familiar with the trend for photos where the subject turns their back to the camera – it’s the new ‘I just woke up like this’, and there’s barely a beach on the planet that hasn’t been immortalised to include a blogger or influencer facing its horizon.

It’s not a new composition by any stretch of the imagination. Photographers and visual artists have used this technique for hundreds of years – from Michelangelo to Man Ray – but the ability to create your own image with just a tripod and a remote shutter app gives the concept a whole new complexion. It changes the perspective from what an artist wants you to see, to what the subject wants to present. It’s still a selfie, but one with a new logic that flies in the face (if you’ll excuse the pun) of the acknowledged psychological link between faces and the ability to interpret non-verbal cues. Indeed, the stats are clear that when creating a connection, faces matter.

But consider for a moment what a self-captured image from ‘the wrong side’ tells us about the moment, the photographer and their personal brand. For let us not be naïve, that is precisely why these images exist. It’s part of the process, designed often to show aspects of their world and present their person in the most enviable light. At the same time, they encourage us to think a little, dwell and maybe drop a comment – it all adds up to engagement. Take a look and see if you recognise these three popular ‘faceless selfies’ from your feed.

A man stands in shadows, with his back to the camera. His bare arms hold open two curtains and he looks out through a second pair of net curtains into the light.

A peek behind the curtain

Simultaneously inviting the viewer into a private space, but seemingly unaware of being watched, the back to camera shot when taken at home sends an ambiguous message – I know you’re here, but I’m not ready to engage with you. It also offers the chance to let ‘behind the scenes’ surroundings, lighting or filters tell a story – whether that’s showing success or sadness. It’s a definite bond-builder of an image.

A long-haired woman in a striped bikini sits cross-legged on the beach, facing the sea with her back to the camera. The sun is setting.

‘Seeing through’

Both photographer and viewer are looking at the same scene, but the shared view is very different – and this is where the photographer is in control. They have a clear view of what’s in front of them, but the viewer has to see them before they can see the landscape. No matter how beautiful the scene is, the purpose is owned by the photographer and they want you to see their experience of this amazing place – with them at the centre of it.

A long-haired person in fur-trimmed parka and navy-blue hat and scarf stands to the right of the picture, facing blurred evening lights, turned away from the camera.

Guessing games

Happy? Sad? Indifferent? With no way of seeing the photographer’s face, the viewer has to take their cues from clues, or the post written below. A colder, greyer filter might suggest some unhappiness, a warm orange glow for nostalgia. Perhaps it’s filter-free for some warts and all honesty. If it’s all in the guesswork, then the photo is doing its job – intrigue can equal engagement.

Clearly, these kinds of ‘back to camera’ shots can hide a multitude of sins and are an easy way to create a post without needing to look or even feel your best. However, despite being the great option for lazy days, you’ll notice that all these techniques have something else in common: emotion. Each image is designed to prime the viewer and stimulate feeling, even at a subconscious level, whether that’s intrigue, envy or empathy. Emotion is the route to engagement and the sheer volume of images that are required to maintain that engagement means mixing it up a little, both in terms of how the images look and the emotions they convey. Turning your back to the camera is just one way to achieve this without looking too contrived, while also creating a natural looking break in a sea of selfies, where it’s not all about you (but it is really).

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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