In a 1940 photo a man lay on the Coney Island beach after being pulled from the surf. The mood was somber and the faces in the surrounding crowd showed concern for the victim—except for one face, that of a woman in the center of the photo, whose smile suggested she was thinking, “Here I am at the scene of a tragedy.” That photo foreshadowed the self-centeredness that has become a dominant characteristic of the present age, a characteristic epitomized by the selfie.
On my recent trip to Spain with a group of fellow retirees, one of our group sent a few photos to her son—a scene at the Alhambra palace, a view from high up on Gibraltar, and several of the Mediterranean coast. His response was “Nice pix, Mom, but why aren’t you in them?”
As she shared his response with the group, she shook her head and said, “It’s a generational thing. We take pictures of places—they take pictures of themselves. The places are merely a backdrop.”
Her observation was insightful. The most repeated line on Facebook seems to be the announcement that so and so has “added a photo,” and the photo is usually a selfie. In fact, one of the hottest items in the camera world is the “selfie stick,” invented by Hiroshi Ueda and popularized by Wayne Fromm to make self-photos easier.
As a result of the selfie trend, instead of pictures of the Taj Mahal or the Grand Canyon, we now have cousin Sophie standing in front of those marvels. And while many young people may be saying “Wow! What neat pictures of Sophie,” most seniors are saying, “What a shame that woman had to block the lovely view.”
Students of photography will remember Ansel Adams’ wonderful black and white photographs of towering mountains, winding rivers, billowing clouds, rain-drenched forests, and plummeting waterfalls, each of which evoked appreciation of nature and stimulated reflection of the deeper meaning of human existence. Imagine how diminished those scenes would have been with cousin Sophie’s or uncle Henry’s face plastered in the center.
Adams once remarked that “there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” If he were alive today, he would have to revise that to three people—the photographer, the viewer, and the intruder who ruined the moment.
My point is not that photographs should never be centered on people, but only that the present tendency to put ourselves in every picture is overdone. Moreover, it diminishes the quality of our perception and discourages reflective thinking.
When generations that grew up before cell phones and digital cameras saw a beautiful scene in nature, or an item of cultural or historical importance, they studied it closely, focusing on every detail, so that they could commit it to memory and enjoy it again at a later time. Such thoughtful perception invited reflection on the significance of the scene or item to themselves and humankind and on the concept of beauty, culture, or history.
In sharp contrast, when the selfie generation sees a beautiful scene or a noteworthy artifact, their automatic reaction is to put themselves in front of it and block it from view and therefore from reflection. They would argue that they are only storing it in a way more reliable than memory. But even if they do return to reflect on it at some future time, which is not as likely as it may seem—pictures have a way of remaining unnoticed in folders or computer files—they will not see the original scene but merely themselves in front of it.
Putting ourselves in the front of every picture may seem innocuous, but it is really a form of egoism, in some cases narcissism. The unspoken idea behind the selfie is that the picture is enhanced by our being in it, that without our presence the Taj Mahal is just another building, the Grand Canyon just another ditch.
With that notion even vaguely in mind, we are unlikely to experience the humbling realization of how small we are compared to the grandeur of God’s creation. And that is a shame.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved