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Non Selfies & Hamish 'Hamish' Smythe

Aside from being a prolific Non Stamp Collector, Hamish ‘H’ Smythe was a master at not appearing in photographs. He envisaged the non-selfie, decades before selfies became fashionable.

Smythe breathed his last just over two weeks ago, however, several days passed before his apathetic wife noticed. “That’s just the sort of man he was,” she said with a shrug. “In hindsight, I should have realized he was up to something sooner. He hadn’t said a darn thing to me for a whole month, then he suddenly looked up from his desk, turned directly towards me and spoke rather sternly, which was most unusual for Hamish. He uttered what I now understand to be his final words. He then turned back towards his desk and let out a slow resigned sigh. That was obviously the moment he left us, although at the time I just thought he’d simply exhausted all he had to say.

An iconic photo of the Berlin Wall - Smythe insisted he was not depicted in this image.

The final words of Hamish ‘Hamish’ Smythe

“You know what, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand’s not me in any of those damn photos!”

Despite his talent for not appearing in photographs, there is dispute over exactly which photos Smythe failed to appear in. It's a controversy most historians won't be debating for many years to come.

The Wall

When rumours began to circulate about his possible presence in several Berlin Wall images, Smythe was furious. “Malicious allegations!”he retorted in a 1997, Rolling Stone magazine interview.. Smythe lost a considerable amount of weight around this time. Possibly due to stress invoked by the accusations. But he may have just been dieting.

Personally, I believe Smyth is not the man depicted in the above Berling Wall photo, but it’s merely my hunch. There seems to be a startling lack of evidence either way. I wonder if this lack of evidence was something Smythe himself did not orchestrate? If so, it would stand as a powerful exemplification of his art.

The dog in this photograph is another matter. Smythe employed a dog-walker on occasions. Smythe was a staunch non-runner who often pushed his non-running to the limit.

He was haunted by his days of competitive walking. Sometime, during the late 1950s, he was reprimanded for breaking into a trot. Thereafter, throughout his life, he frequently refrained from walking for fear his gait may develop into a quicker pace.

On one occasion, Smythe went three years without walking. So it’s feasible that while Smythe is probably not shown in the above photo of the Berlin Wall, his dog very well maybe. But then again, perhaps not.

No Elephant?

A Circus Elephant Smythe is highly unlikely to have owned.

As scholars have pointed out, all we can know for sure here is that if Smythe ever owned a circus elephant (of which there is no evidence), it’s not shown in Belin Wall photograph above. Now, this may seem like a childish point at first, still, but it serves to raise a confronting philosophical question; for as others have argued, perhaps an elephant, or even Smythe himself, is hidden behind a section of the wall in the image! This leads us to another rather disturbing question; can you be present in a photograph, even if you’re not actually shown? It’s a question Smythe pondered decades ago.

Hopey’s Selfie

Urban mythology claims the word selfie was coined in 2002, by Australian, Nathan Hope. He fell over drunk at his 21st birthday and cut his bottom lip. After a visit to hospital, he posted a picture of his stitched lip with the caption, “Sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

Aussie slang is keen on shortening words and adding 'ie' on the end.

There is brekkie for breakfast, mozzie for mosquito, veggies for vegetables, and so on.

Even an entire phrase is sometimes stuffed into an ‘ie’ word, for example, sickie, which means a day off work due to illness.

It’s not so difficult to imagine the word selfie was ever-present in the Aussie lexicon and waiting for a purpose.

Hopey’s selfie. The first ?

Was it Nathan Hope, who first assigned meaning to the word selfie? He is widely credited with inventing the selfie, yet it’s an honour he staunchly denies.

“It was not a word I coined. It’s something that was just common slang at the time, used to describe a picture of yourself. Fairly simple.” Ironically, it seems the more adamantly Nathan Hope states he did not invent the selfie, the fewer backyard etymologists believe him.

In true Non Stamp Collecting style, and with no intention of achieving anything at all, Mr Hope has been made famous for not doing what others inexplicably wish him to have done!

First Man Pictured

Louis Daguerre produced the first photo that depicts a human in 1838, in Paris. It is a street scene called, View of the Boulevard du Temple.

No doubt the street was full of busy pedestrians and horse carriages at the time it was taken. However, several minute exposures were required to produce photos back then, so everything moving dissolved into the background.  

Detail from, 'View of the Boulevard du Temple’. The first person to appear in a photograph, 1838.

But one unknown man happened to remain still long to be immortalized in the View of the Boulevard du Temple. He stood unaware of his place in history, motionless, as his boots were polished. 

Remaining frozen in front of a wooden box with a glass lens stuck on the front came naturally to humankind. Almost as soon as the camera was invented, selfies were snapped, over several minutes. 

Of course, long before cameras, we had painted self-portraits. After all, each of us is our favourite subject!

It was Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia who produced the first photographic self-portrait, in 1839. His selfie is considered the first successful photograph of a human being. Earlier photos showing people lack clarity. 

Robert is identifiable in his photo, or at least he would be to anyone who knew him!


This brings us to the tricky question of authenticity. To be a selfie, must the person in it be identifiable? Must the photo accurately depict their real-life self, as opposed to an altered, enhanced or improved version, produced with filters and editing?  

Robert Cornelius, 1839. The first selfie, and first identifiable photo of a human. Original and digital touch-up. Which version is the most authentic image of Robert?

Is a photo of one's hand a selfie? Or for that matter, is Nathen Hope’s picture of his lips a selfie? Or is it just a study of stitched lips?  That depends on what you consider to be you. If you lose your hand, part of you has gone, but you don't cease to exist, so was your hand really you in the first place? How much of you could you chop away before you disappeared? Two arms and two legs? Perhaps a little more? How much of you can you neglect to show of yourself in a photograph, while still maintaining the photo is of you?

Can a photograph that captures the photographer's intention, or mood, rather than their physical form, be a selfie? If so, then surely landscapes can be selfies too? 

Can we consider the act of avoiding being in photo altogether, either one that is taken by the self, or by another, to be a selfie? 

For Hamish ‘Hamish’ Smythe, the answer was a resounding, yes! 

To Selfie or Not Too selfie? That is the Question! 

Writing in the early 1970s, Hamish ‘Hamish’ Smythe, scribed the first documented usage of the word, selfie, proceeding Nathen Hope by three decades. For Smyth, however, the selfie is not confined to photographs.  

Every form of self-reflection is itself a selfie. Every conscious undertaking is a selfie. Every act of involvement is a selfie. Every act of avoidance is a selfie. Any projection, or mere awareness, of one's own existence, is a selfie." - Hamish ‘Hamish’ Smythe, 'Contemporay Stamp Indifference.'

Smyth identified five reasons why a selfie may be produced.  

1: Preservation: the desire to record a moment in time and space. In terms of a photo, this may mean depicting oneself in an exotic location, with a friend, meeting someone famous, attending an important event, and so on. But a record of a time and place may also be captured in a painting, a diary, a piece of music — or anything else that emerges from the self, for the purpose of preserving something of the self. 

2: Promotion: seeking attention, praise, or approval. Ego-based and often narcissistic.  

3: Disclosure: seeking sympathy or acknowledgment of an emotional state, be it sadness, joy, or anything between. Although attention is involved here, it is not ego-driven like self-promotion, but merely a reaching out in want of sharing something of the human experience.  

4: Exploration: probing one's self-identity. Asking, ‘who am I, and what is my place in the world?’ A selfie can serve to explore self-awareness and self-evaluation.  

5: Affirmation: the declaration of one’s self. This also involves attention, but the motive isn’t to promote oneself so much as reveal one’s nature. It is saying, ‘Here I am, this is me. For good or bad, I stand naked before you.’

According to Smyth, these five motivators may operate independently or in combination, and none depend on photography. Furthermore, we cannot free ourselves from them, so producing selfies is not a choice, but inherent to our nature.

The Non-Selfie

“Art reverts to being incomplete when people look away,” wrote Smythe. “Books depend on a reader to release the latent stories within. When left unread, books are but a mess of ink on paper, a mere physical lump of a thing, devoid of imagery and life. Likewise, the self is not a self unless it is witnessed by a self, even if the self that witnesses is the very same self being observed.”

René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist artist, famously said, "The feeling we experience while we look at a picture is not to be distinguished from the picture or from ourselves. The feeling, picture, and ourselves are united in one mystery."

Just as Smyth was a master of not appearing in photographs, Magritte was brilliant at not appearing in his self-portraits. 

If ever anyone depicted the non-self, it would be Magritte. His self-portraits reveal not the man, but his absence. 

René Magritte, Décalcomanie, 1966. A noble attempt at depicting the non-self, but still a selfie, according to Smyth.

Yet for Smyth, Magritte failed to go far enough. Smyth believed that all imagery was in fact a selfie of Smyth himself, so long as he was aware of the image, no matter if he appeared in it, or not. "To view an image is to be forever entangled with it. If know of it, it has captured something of me," he wrote.  

Smythe wanted to push his art to the limit by not producing any art at all. His goal was to undepict himself from the world. He wanted even his absence to be absent. And yet, he knew to produce such an elusive work of art was an imposible, at least during his own lifetime. 

“One may assert their identity through being conspicuously absent,” wrote Smythe, in his groundbreaking yet appropriately ignored work, Contemporary Stamp Indifference.

“But to be authentically absence requires one’s absence to go unacknowledged,” he added.

“The non-selfie is the highest form of art, in part because it is perfect in its non-existence, and in part, because it remains out of reach to mortals. After all, to exist is to render oneself a selfie.” 

Smyth wrote, in what many may regard as an extreme view, “Simply being present in any form whatsoever borders on narcissism. But it is a narcissism which we are forced into by the fact of our birth.

Being present in any manner is always a performance, but so long as we exist, our absence is equally performance. Flaunting one's absence may render one more powerfully present than if one were actually there. 

Social withdrawal as a means of self-assertion is a selfie as much as any other selfie. 

But to be neither absent or present, to be a non-person, to not exist at all, to dissolve into nothingness, and hence come to be an authentic, non-self—that is the ultimate in spirituality, wisdom and art.”


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