Soubanh Phanthay, a Brewer city councilor and owner of Memorymaker Photography in Bangor, had long been brainstorming with other councilors and community members about how they could bring more arts and creative experiences to Brewer — especially ones that could inspire and entertain young people. Then, over the winter, an idea dawned on him.
“I love photography, obviously. And everybody has a camera on their phone. Everyone wants to take pictures, selfies or otherwise,” Phanthay said. “When I heard about the whole concept of a selfie museum, it clicked for me. It was just the right thing. It was like, ‘I’m going to bring this to Brewer.’”
A selfie museum is an art gallery filled with installations that offer multiple unique settings for visitors to pose in front of and take photos to post on social media or send to people. There are a handful of other selfie museums around the country in major cities like Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle, but there are none in New England — until now.
Selfie Space, Phanthay’s selfie museum and makerspace, opened this weekend at 54 Wilson St. in Brewer, on the second floor above the Creative Arts Center, next to the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge.
Over the course of a busy three months, Phanthay and several local artists have designed and built 30 unique spaces within the museum, each with a different theme, including a 1950s diner, a fairytale forest, an upside-down room, a Bigfoot sighting campsite and a hot-pink jail cell. Eventually, there will also be outdoor spaces as well, and Phanthay intends to switch out installations as new ideas come to him.
With paid admission, visitors can come and snap as many photos as they want — leaving with a colorful and creative document of their visit.
“It’s interactive, it’s showing off local artists, and it lets people have fun together while taking their own photos,” Phanthay said. “It’s something that I hope will show young people in the area that you can do cool things right here in your hometown. You don’t have to move away. You can do it right here.”
The centerpiece of the museum is a “mirror infinity room,” inspired by the work of famed Japanese installation artist Yayoi Kusama. When you close the door behind you in the room, you’re immersed in an endlessly repeating array of views of yourself, illuminated by color-changing LED lights.
Beyond the museum itself, the Selfie Space also has a rentable photography studio where people can take more professional photos and video with professional lighting, as well as a small recording studio.
“I want this to be a creative space, where content creators can do lots of things, whether they want to make a music video, do a photoshoot, record a podcast. You can do stuff that you can put on TikTok or YouTube,” he said. “People don’t often have that kind of setup at home. Now they can come and do it all here.”
Photography is more than just a job for Phanthay, 46. He was born in Vientiane, Laos, just after the end of the Vietnam War, and when he was a toddler, he and his parents and six siblings were forced out of their home and into a refugee camp outside of the city. After two years in the camp, in 1980, they were able to move the entire family to Houlton, thanks to a sponsorship from a local church. A few years later, the family moved from Houlton to Bangor, and Phanthay has lived in the area ever since.
The family came to the United States with virtually nothing, let alone a camera, and one thing Phanthay longed for were photographs of his family when he and his siblings were small children. So when he got his first Polaroid camera, and later a video camera, he instantly became obsessed with documenting everything — every birthday, family gathering or other milestone, major or not.
“I just wanted to make sure we had our family history documented,” he said. “I was like the paparazzi for my family. Back then, to me, it was just play, but now I know how important it is to document everything.”
For nearly 20 years, Phanthay has operated his own photography business, shooting weddings, celebrations, portraits and local events. Selfie Space grew directly out of that.
“I know what makes a good image. And, as a councilor, one of my priorities is to try to build the arts scene in Brewer,” he said. “And we’ve just had a blast making this dream a reality. I’m really excited about all the possibilities that can come out of this.”
The Selfie Space will be open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. During the rest of the week, the space will be open by appointment for use of the photo and recording studios, and for rentals. Admission is $25 for visitors ages 13 and up, $15 for ages 5 to 12, and free for ages four and under.