St Andrews and the culture of narcissism

Ever wonder how everyone always looks so good in those Friday night club photos? Well, the truth is – they don’t.

When fourth-year film student Tommy Rowe started working as a Lightbox photographer, the process was simple: he would take two hundred or so photos off his camera, adjust the exposure and white balance a bit, and wrap it all up in half an hour. These days?

“Four hours of editing,” he says. “You check to make sure the flash didn’t catch any oil on their face – and if it did, you smooth it over. Whiten their teeth, make the photo brighter, make the background darker, make sure the colour’s looking good.”

Once upon a time, maybe, photography was seen as a way of reproducing reality. The advent of daguerreotypes in 1839 incited a furious conflict between the established art world and the upstart photographer; if you had a medium that could capture and replicate the real world with pinpoint accuracy, what was the point of realistic art?

Slowly, however, people started to realize that photography had very little to do with reality. St Andrews is the perfect example of this. In this town, photography is a business based around the largely fabricated public personae of the student population – driven by a desire to present an idealized version of oneself to the world.

In 1979, cultural historian Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. In this scathing critique of postwar Western culture, he stated that corporate bureaucracies “put a premium on the manipulation of interpersonal relations … and at the same time provide the narcissist with the approval he needs in order to validate his self-esteem.”

Mr Rowe puts it in more concise terms. “End of the day, we’re a client-based business,” he says. “And people are inherently narcissistic. They want photos taken of them at these events because they want to be seen there – so we’re here to scratch that narcissistic itch. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t think it’s intrinsically a bad thing.”

It’s certainly no indictment of Lightbox – they were just a few talented photographers who were responding to demand, and who were savvy enough to build a business out of it.

Lasch wasn’t the first to criticize the increasing narcissism of Western society, and he certainly wasn’t the last. A veritable sea of journalists, armchair psychologists, actual psychologists, research institutes and behavioural scientists churn out articles about the me generation, the millennial sense of entitlement, etcetera. There was a 13 per cent rise in cosmetic procedures in the UK in 2015, consistent with the general long-term trend. Narcissism is now understood less as a narrow clinical diagnosis and more as an “epidemic.”

However, this particular attitude among students isn’t the self-assured disregard for others that the clinical narcissist so often displays. On the contrary, these students are deeply concerned with what others think.

The Lightbox Facebook page, explains Rowe, gets two kinds of requests when they put up photos after a big event. The first variety is from people who want their photo taken down, for a variety of predictable reasons: they were drunk, they were making out with someone they shouldn’t have made out with, or they just look dumb.

“If people aren’t looking their best, they don’t want to be seen,” says Rowe. “They know if Lightbox is posting five hundred photos after Christmas ball, every person who went to Christmas ball and every person who didn’t is going to be clicking through them.”

The second sort of request comes from people who demand to know why their photo hasn’t been put up. On average, Rowe posts about a fifth of all the photos he takes. Sometimes they’re duplicates, sometimes the photo doesn’t come out right. But this seems to raise the ire of many students who smiled for the camera – because after all, if you didn’t get your picture taken, were you really there?

Tom Oldridge, a second year bio/psych student who has been working as a Lightbox photographer since 2016, isn’t too fond of this mentality.

“I think it sort of boils down to wanting some form of validation for your whereabouts from others, something I don’t think we should rely on,” he says.

Everything from the pseudo-cosmetic efforts of the photo editors to the feigned, painfully frozen smiles points to a sort of performance. The subjects don’t just want their friends to know that they were there and beautiful – they want their friends to know that they had a good time.

In a world of increasing surveillance, where we seem to know every mundane detail of a celebrity’s life, curating your digital persona becomes of paramount importance even to the average student. Thus the rise of social marketing services, PR agents, LinkedIn, and Snapchat.

Of course, it might be wise to take a minute and look at the reasons behind this “epidemic of narcissism” before consigning an entire generation of tweens to the rubbish-heap of self-entitlement. The President of the United States is an archetypal narcissist, and he certainly is the anxious and insecure type – you can practically see the digital spittle spraying out around every furious, incoherent tweet. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter writes that “Trump has skin of gossamer. He thinks nothing of saying the most hurtful thing about someone else, but when he hears a whisper that runs counter to his own vainglorious self-image, he coils like a caged ferret.”

Material and economic realities always influence the reigning attitudes of the time, and very rarely the other way around. Trump runs on the same currency of vanity as St Andrews, and both are a symptom of that old, tired, late-capitalist individualist rhetoric.

There are a few marked differences, though – Trump’s vanity is loud, overbearing and nationalist, while this university’s is immersed in the calmer waters of exclusivity and class. If the world in general is experiencing an epidemic of narcissism, St Andrews might be a ward for the most severely infected.

“I think that it’s amplified by the echo chamber that is our town’s small student population,” says Oldridge. “It’s small enough for ‘social ladders’ to form which are often cemented by appearing to be at the most prestigious events or holding positions on committees of societies that serve almost exclusively for self-glorification.”

Then again, it’s easy enough to get some distance from the self-obsessed mentality and forego all that social media anxiety. The easiest way, in fact, might be to get on the other side of that roving lens; to appreciate photography for its own sake, as an art or as a form of preserving the past in all its high-definition.

“Pictures can be a great way of sharing your present feelings with others and act as an important method of quickly checking up on one another,” Oldridge muses. “For me, pictures are probably most important for personal documentation and as future cues for fond memories.”

“Me? I don’t get pictures taken of me too often,” says Rowe. “It’s a weird paradox, I suppose. I get hired to take photos of people, but personally – I don’t care about being in photos at all.”

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