The more I travel the more I see people taking photographs of not just themselves, but also each other, historic sites, their food and anything else that catches their eye. This in itself is not unusual, and after all I do the same, but what is escalating beyond any sense of proportion is the sheer scale of it.
And this is not something that is limited to Western or developed countries. This impulse is universal and perhaps nothing else in the modern era un masks the sameness of every human on the planet. Culture, religion, wealth, class, age, none of these things matter when it comes to joining in with the taking photos obsession. The sight of someone taking tourist snaps of themselves has become so common place that it’s hardly even noticed by other people.
The most recent development of these compulsions is the ‘selfie’. Now there is no need to ask a passer by to take a photo for you. You are your own photographer, art director and editor. There seems to be no limit to the lengths people will go to get the shot, often putting many a hard working photojournalist to shame.
The selfie stick is an added incarnation of this craze, allowing everyone to artfully pose themselves in front of any scene or event. This innocuous piece of equipment has become quite divisive though and many profess to dislike the proliferation. This has reached a kind of angst among some people who complain about ‘their’ view being ruined by phones, attached to poles, prodding up in to the sky in front of them.
It’s hard to analyse the universal popularity of all of this. I suspect a strong narcissistic element to much of it but there seems to be more to it than that. What does everyone do with their images? Mostly, it would seem, to gather social reinforcement and validation by sharing the shots through social media. There does seem to be an element of societal belonging, as though you didn’t really go to where you said you did without the required proof.
However, like all good photographers, many seem to simply enjoy the process of image making. Taking photos is a fun thing to do. It can also be a kind of mediative undertaking, which is after all, what draws many photographers to pursue the craft seriously. There is another element that I’ve observed and it is less sinister than the usual commentary around photo proliferation and that is that many people do seem to have a genuine and quite sincere desire to share their experiences. The modern day version of choosing a postcard and writing ‘Wish you were here’ and posting it back home. Most of us have a rush of excitement at seeing somewhere new and we often think of someone else who would love to have felt that same feeling by being there with us.
There are hundreds of millions of photos being uploaded to sharing sites every day. I don’t know how many of those get seen compared to how many just drift off in to cyber space, like a satellite knocked of course drifting aimlessly around in orbit. Perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps they don’t need to be seen, just like no one (mostly) keeps every single thing they’re ever written down, no one really has the intention of keeping every image they make.
As a photographer, I found all of this quite irritating at first. The ability to compose and create images of popular travel locations is difficult with dozens of people all doing the same thing in front of you. However, photographing the photographers proved to be more interesting. There is something intriguing, and even amusing, to watch people who are free of preconceptions marching around a historic site snapping away as though there is no one else there.
It looks like we are entering a new era of self awareness. The universally popular past time of people watching has now come to include watching ourselves watching people and recording the act of it. A friend can be on a trip on the other side of the planet and you are treated to a steady stream of reference shots of every twist and turn of the trip, almost in real time. For the most part they’re, as they’ve always been, uninspiring and of little interest to anyone else, but now again there is a great shot that gives a sudden pang of wishing you were there!
One thing is for sure, this craze doesn’t seem to be abating and if you can’t beat them, join them!