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The Decade in My Face

I took nearly 2,500 selfies during the 2010s. My face changed—but something about it didn’t.

The various faces of Justin Peters
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Peters.

On Jan. 6, 2010, I sat down at my desk, opened up Photo Booth on my brand new MacBook, and snapped my first-ever selfie. In it, I’m sporting a very fresh haircut and a puzzled, mournful expression. I am tired and stressed and don’t want to be here, my face seems to read. Someone help me. I was 28 years old and still naïve enough to think that someone would heed my call.

I worked at a small magazine at the time, editing articles about the media for an audience of roughly no one. Like most people, I didn’t love my job; like most people, I was also afraid to quit. On most days I woke up feeling adrift, yearning to do something I’d find more meaningful, too scared to actually go out and chase existential fulfillment. I hoped my destiny would find me eventually. In the meantime, for no reason I could articulate, I decided to take some pictures.

I took another selfie on Jan. 7, 2010, and again on the next day and the next. Weeks became months. The pictures piled up. Soon, I had a bona fide project on my hands. By the end of that first year, I had snapped 268 self-portraits. (I refused to work weekends.) By the end of five years, I had taken more than 1,300. In this respect—and in this respect alone—I was firmly on trend.

Few things better defined the 2010s than the selfie. This was the decade we all became solipsistic paparazzi, when ubiquitous digital cameras allowed us to experience the world via staged photographs of ourselves experiencing the world. As a result, plenty of people—not me, though!—consider selfie culture to be a reflection of a broader moral decay. In one particularly on-the-nose example of selfie backlash, in 2016 the Dick Tracy comic strip debuted a new villain called “Selfy,” who dispatched his victims with a poison-tipped selfie stick. (Selfy’s reign of terror ended when he was gored to death by a water buffalo.) The lesson was clear: Narcissism is inherently antisocial and corrosive, and also selfies will cause you to die at the zoo.

I didn’t want to die at the zoo. But I also wasn’t going stop photographing myself just because Dick Tracy said so. My laptop selfie project gave me a fixed task around which to order each day, like a slightly less toxic cigarette break. I enjoyed the routine, even as I knew that the moments I captured were rarely exciting ones. They were set mostly at work, at home, or on trains. They were hardly worth sharing on social media. Nevertheless, together they comprised an honest record of my day-to-day life as an interstitial online journalist. And so I kept going. Today, nearly 10 years after I started, I have a folder on my computer containing roughly 2,500 close-range laptop selfies.

Justin on Jan. 6, 2010, and Dec. 26, 2019.
Justin on Jan. 6, 2010, and Dec. 26, 2019. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Peters.

What a decade it’s been for my face! It has lines where once there were none. It’s gone from pudgy to lean to pudgy again. My face has endured beards, tans, restorative clay masks, and a decade of the same stupid haircut. It has been to 40 U.S. states, four continents, three political conventions, two college reunions, and one improv cruise. My face has manifested joy, sorrow, fear, excitement, scorn, agony, determination, and searing stomach pain. And, by and large, it is just as unmoored in this roiling world as it was when I first started this project.

I recently surveyed my entire corpus of selfies to see how the 2010s had treated my face, as well as my shoulders and upper torso. There were happy moments to revisit, like my wedding day, and the day I held the first hardbound copy of my book. There were frightful moments, too, like the time I flew off my bike face-first into a parked car and somehow suffered no lasting damage, and the day I appeared on CNN looking like a man who had just confessed to a string of underpass murders. I also reexamined my face during moments of broader import. There are photos of me looking puzzled while covering the 2016 Republican National Convention; looking shook after the 2016 presidential election; and looking dumbstruck while covering Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration. If you had taken your own selfies on those days, I imagine your face would have appeared the same way. Scanning these photos returns me to the various emotions I felt back then: the joy, the sorrow, the paralyzing anxiety as the world falls apart. What a ride!

I also looked for patterns in the pictures. It turns out my wardrobe is much the same today as it was in 2010. Once a shirt enters my rotation, it stays there until it gets lost at the laundromat. The selfies also confirm that I have only ever had a beard in the spring and summer, and never for more than three weeks at a time. Apparently I finally realized that there’s no good reason to grow an itchy beard during the sweatiest time of the year, because I stopped doing it after 2017. As a very sweaty man who hates being itchy, I project that this recent trend will continue.

Justin on July 30, 2011 (his wedding day) and July 31, 2012 (the day he looked like this on CNN).
Justin on July 30, 2011 (his wedding day) and July 31, 2012 (the day he looked like this on CNN). Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Peters.

In terms of facial expressions, the 2010s were a very dour decade for me: I smiled in exactly 10.85 percent of selfies. My smiliest year was 2016, when I smiled in 21.37 percent of my selfies; my gloomiest year was 2011, the year Peter Falk died, when I smiled in a mere 2.66 percent of them. When I’m not smiling—89.15 percent of the time—I generally default to the same dumbfounded expression: eyes wide, lips either pursed into an incipient wince or opened slightly in confusion, as if I’m startled to see my own face looking back at me from my computer screen.

In 2014, when I last wrote about this project-in-progress for Slate, I noted that I had not aged appreciably over the first five-year span. This is no longer true—I clearly look older now than I did when I started. But while I no longer look exactly the same, I can report that the look I give hasn’t changed at all. “Why do you always make that same weird face?” my wife asked me once. “Because it’s funny,” I said in response, and it’s sort of true. It is sort of funny to have 2,500 pictures of me looking like a disoriented Muppet. But the real answer is that it is the most honest look I know how to give.

Justin Peters makes the same expression six years apart.
Justin on April 8, 2013 (the day Margaret Thatcher died), and Aug. 28, 2019 (the day Popeye’s temporarily removed the Chicken Sandwich from its menu). Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Peters.

When you look at a single picture of yourself from a decade ago, you’re apt to reflect on how you’ve changed physically since then: the hair you’ve lost, the weight you’ve gained, the tattoos you’ve come to regret. But when I looked at 2,500 pictures of myself, I ended up fixating on the ways in which I haven’t meaningfully changed, on how I feel almost as adrift today as I did when I was 28. When I first started photographing myself each day I felt unmoored. I didn’t know what I wanted out of my life and career. I didn’t know how to articulate my dreams, let alone how to go out and chase them. I hoped I would figure things out eventually. Ten years later, despite my various and sundry accomplishments, it still feels like life is happening to me rather than the other way around. I’m still Muppet-mouthing my way through the days as I wait for other people to tell me what to do. And I’ve started to realize I am running out of time.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve grown older without really growing up. I still wake up most days feeling overmatched by and underprepared for the tasks that await me. I’m still waiting for meaning and purpose to descend. In the meantime, I try to do a good job with my life and my work. I try to keep busy and not to let things get me down. I try to project competence and affability to the outside world. But for a few seconds every day I turn to my computer, open up Photo Booth, drop the mask for a moment, and reveal what is really inside. Still haven’t figured this shit out, my face is saying. If help is coming, it had better get here soon.

Justin on May 17, 2013 (the day Fast & Furious 6 came out), and Nov. 9, 2016 (the day after the U.S. presidential election).
Justin on May 17, 2013 (the day Fast & Furious 6 came out), and Nov. 9, 2016 (the day after the U.S. presidential election). Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Peters.

Critics hate selfie culture—and the broader social media landscape that enables it— in part because it rewards vapidity, inauthenticity, and self-absorption, because most selfies are self-serving advertisements for their participants’ purportedly wonderful lives. But the photographic record of the past decade in my face isn’t like that at all. When I last wrote about this project, I concluded that I had captured nothing of significant interest. Now the mundanity feels like the whole point.

The decade in my face is a compendium of the forgettable days that engulf life’s interesting moments; a chronicle of quiet vulnerability, workaday despair, and literally thousands of bad hair days. My selfie project is a record of 2,500 moments when I’ve realized that today isn’t going to be the day I figure everything out. Taken together, the photos make a good case that help is never coming, that I am never going to get it right, and that life is what happens when you’re waiting for your life to begin.

I don’t exactly know what 2020 will bring for my face. I’ll probably shave on Jan. 1, but beyond that I don’t really have any plans. Nevertheless, I’ll start this new decade the same way I started the last one: by opening my laptop, firing up Photo Booth, hoping for a miracle, and settling for another chance to try again.