Selfie Protest

Kerstin Schankweiler

Selfie protests are a social media phenomenon of hashtag activism most notably distinguished by their use of selfies and accompanying slogans that have come to serve as a virtual form of political demonstration. Well-known examples of selfie protest include campaigns such as #FreeAJStaff – Journalism is not a crime against the detention of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt in December 2013 (fig. 1) and #BringBackOurGirls against the abduction of 273 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014. These movements often have their own social media pages where the images are shared and posted, which allow these various political causes to become coordinated campaigns and expressions of transnational protest culture.

The images follow a specific scheme: they are generally taken as selfies (though sometimes as group portraits or delegated self-portraits) presenting the body of the protester centrally in his or her physical presence who are usually seen holding a handwritten message. In this respect, selfie campaigns directly adopt the practices of public demonstrations such as holding up a self-made protest sign. The signs used in the selfies often integrate the given hashtag coined for the specific protest, which serves in encapsulating the movement’s message or claim, for example #BringBackOurGirls. The appeal “bring back our girls” originally began as a form of protest among demonstrators in Nigeria, which was subsequently appropriated with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls as a collective phrase to identify with the mothers and express solidarity.

Sometimes the generic hashtag is seen accompanied by more personalized statements from the individual protester. For example the youth protest under the hashtag #NotAMartyr, a movement in response to a bombing that killed sixteen-year-old Mohammed Schaar in December 2013 in Beirut, took on a more individualized dimension with protestors’ accompanying statements such as “I don’t want to hear thunder or fireworks and mistake them for a bomb” or “I don’t want to have to guess which neighbourhood my loved ones will be murdered in. I don’t want to have to say this is normal” (fig. 2).

In some campaigns emotionally loaded symbols are incorporated, for example tapping over one’s mouth as seen in selfies of #FreeAJStaff, in an effort to illustrate the suppression of free speech and freedom of the press. Such iconic gestures can sometimes even substitute the written sign and hashtag that is then only posted in the comments. One example is a selfie protest with the accompanying hashtags #Iwanttobreathe ‪and #SuffocatingPrisoners (fig. 3) that started during a heat wave in Egypt in May 2016. Protestors are seen with a plastic bag over their head emblemizing the inhumane conditions in Egyptian prisons. This type of staging draws from a vast iconography of torture with a broad global resonance, in particular the photographs of Abu Ghraib. At the same time these body-related symbols of protest – be it the taped mouth or the plastic bag over the head – serve as a means of affecting. These body-driven acts of protest seem to trigger a sense of anxiety when beheld by the viewer.

Sometimes the individual protesters are identifiable, while other times they choose to remain anonymous. Faces are covered or cropped, sometimes only a hand or a personal object is visible, some images are even reduced to the written sign that functions as a trace of the individual (fig. 2). While these examples clearly push the boundaries of what can be described as a ‘selfie’, these anonymous gestures refer to a number of issues, such as the protection of privacy in social media but also in highlighting that the participation in a political or dissident movement of resistance in certain repressive contexts is often a dangerous act.

The artist Irene Chabr (*1983, CH) takes up the genre of selfie protest in her work. Chabr’s artistic and theoretical research explores new image practices in social networks and focuses on how certain gestures are re-enacted over and over again. Her multi-media works and installations draw upon an extensive archive of user photography, which she has compiled and organized. Chabr’s installation „Wandernde Gesten I“ (“Migratory gestures”, 2015, fig. 4) gathers protest selfies from various campaigns, among them the most retweeted selfie of #BringBackOurGirls, posted by Michelle Obama. Chabr has deleted the messages on the protestor’s hand-held signs. The artist’s intervention emphasizes the common gesture of the selfie protests and the re-enactment that this image genre seems to trigger. At the same time it highlights the surroundings and scenery that reveal the social and cultural differences. Chabr’s work raises issues, such as the promises of a supposed global community or the challenges in differentiating and reconstructing the contexts and motivations behind the individual contributions to these campaigns.

There has been considerable debate about the actual political effectiveness of online activism, which critics have been pejoratively coined as “Feel Good Activism”, “Clicktivism” or even “Slacktivism”. By contrast, other concepts such as “Micro-Activism” take these forms of political participation much more seriously. Selfie protest is not only a new genre in Social Media, it also can be understood as an image practice of the political that expresses advocacy and solidarity. Through the cross-national circulation of images selfie protests can raise broader awareness beyond the local or national level for the issues they address. Taking stock of the selfie as its own genre – a photographic practice often viewed as an expression of narcissism, excessive image cultivation and superficiality – selfie protests prove to be an example of the “sensibility of mass culture” (Stuart Hall): popular mass media phenomena that are not inevitably affirmative but rather contradictory and can also be used as forms of resistance and empowerment.

fig. 1: #FreeAJStaff on tumblr. Source: (18.10.2016)

fig. 2: Examples from #NotAMartyr. Source: (24.01.2016)

fig. 3: Selfies posted with the hashtags #Iwanttobreathe and #SuffocatingPrisoners. Source: (02.06.2016)

fig. 4: Irene Chabr, Wandernde Gesten I, 2015, installation with inkjet prints and printouts of captions, Station 21, “Images in circulation”, Zurich. © Irene Chabr


  • Miriam Grohmann, Layla Kamil Abdulsalam u. Eva Wyss: Selfie-Proteste – eine emergente Praktik des Protests im Web 2.0. In: Aptum. Zeitschrift für Sprachkritik und Sprachkultur 11, 1 (2015), pp. 21-47.
  • Jose Marichal: Political Facebook groups: Micro-activism and the digital front stage, in: First Monday 18/12, (2013), URL:, last access: 22.06.2016
  • Kerstin Schankweiler: Selfie-Proteste. Affektzeugenschaften und Bildökonomien in den Social Media. Working Paper SFB 1171 Affective Societies 05/16, 2016. URL:, last access: 20.10.2016
  • Clare Sheehan: The Selfie Protest: A Visual Analysis of Activism in the Digital Age, MSc Dissertation Series, London 2015, URL:, last access: 31.03.2016


About the author:
Kerstin Schankweiler is a post-doctoral researcher in the Collaborative Research Centre Affective Societies. Dynamics of social coexistence in mobile worlds at Free University Berlin (funded by DFG), working on a project entitled Affective Dynamics of Images in the Era of Social Media: Photographic Testimonies and Images of Martyrs in North and West Africa. She previously worked as an academic staff member for the Arts of Africa at the Department of Art History at Free University Berlin (2010-2015) and for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Department of Art History at University of Cologne (2008-2010). She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Art History at University of Trier where she was part of the research program Identity and Difference – Gender Constructions and Interculturality (18th -21st century). Her thesis on Benin artist Georges Adéagbo was published under the title Die Mobilisierung der Dinge (Bielefeld, Transcript, 2012). She co-edited Ästhetik der Gewalt – Gewalt der Ästhetik (Weimar, VDG, 2013) and Im Maschenwerk der Kunstgeschichte. Eine Revision von George Kublers ‚The Shape of Time‘ (Berlin, Kadmos, 2014). Main research: Image Practices in Social Media, Contemporary Art from Africa, Art History and Postcolonial Theory, Art History in a global context.
Contact: kerstin.schankweiler[at]

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Kerstin Schankweiler: Selfie Protest, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 2 January 2017, URL:

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