The Selfie – A Rant And A Plea

I suppose it had to be done.

I suppose it had to be done.

Google the word “Selfie”.  Go on, I dare you.  I can wait…

Done it?  No?  It’ll only take a moment…

You have?  Ace.  Odd isn’t it.  When I Googled Selfie tonight, I got not one but TWO new stories about people shooting themselves while taking a “gun selfie” (is that really a thing?) and Kim Kardashian celebrating 45 million people who have nothing better to do, by posting on Instagram a selfie of her boobs.  Then there are links to various “sexy selfie” sites (that’s totally a thing, apperently) and, among other things, a rather convincing 2013 article from the very good The Atlantic site which posits Selfies Are Art.  In the article, it talks about the main Feminist arguments over the selfie as empowering and/or oppressive.  It is an interesting think piece that shows the debate over the genre itself.  Me?  I hate the damn things.  Here is why.

Now, it has nothing to do with Feminism, lets state that from the off.  As a father of a daughter, I support your choice for whatever makes a woman feel empowered and able to face the gender-bias of this world.  Coupled to that, in full disclosure, I have taken self selfies (not sure on the terminology, sorry).  So a healthy bit of self loathing is going into these words, but it is a happily rare occurrence.  When we get down to it, this is about overkill and behaviour.  If the odd selfie pops up, fair enough, I’m man enough to take it.  But it is the constant bombardment of “I’ve woken up”, snap, post, “I’ve gotten dressed”, snap, post, “I’m waiting for the bus/train/cab/whatever”, snap, post etc etc.  Unfollow, click.  Look, if you’re feeling great, that is wonderful.  If you need to document your life, fine, just show me what you are doing and what you are seeing, not you in a stock pose that has taken you twenty minutes to get the right lighting and only the appropriate number of chins showing.  Please, just stop, put your phone down and walk away.  The flip side of this is the “in the moment selfie”, which is, I suppose, a little better.  Granted that is like saying Stalin was a little better than Hitler, but still, you know, every little bit helps.  When you see friends in amazing places and they take a snap of an incredible view and the view is spoilt by either their face out of focus or the wonderful view out of focus or just plain spoilt by the person who I know is already there and don’t need to see.  You are having a moment, that is fantastic, capture it by all means.  You are there, live every moment to the hilt.  Just please don’t put yourself in it, it ruins it when you share it.  I have some remarkably photogenic friends and it is always lovely to see them enjoying themselves, but if you are going to take a picture to share with everyone who is connected to the internet, make it a good one and point the phone at something other than yourself.  Or, if you NEED to be in it, get help and get a great picture, the kind you could actually frame.

I'm sure the Ad Man responsible isn't in hell just yet, but soon.

I’m sure the Ad Man responsible isn’t in hell just yet, but soon.

Most of the basis of this rant is based, not really about seeing the resultant selfie which is only a chore.  It is about being forced to endure the people taking selfies and the tool used to “enhance” one’s selfie, “The Wand of Narcissus” itself, the selfie stick.  When I was going to work at the beginning of the summer, my bus pulled up and it was emblazoned with an ad for Coke, who were giving away a million of the things.  I was so upset by that news, I didn’t get on that bus and waited twenty minutes for the next one.  The hatred, and it is that, for the ego extension that connects you to your phone is worryingly profound.  I live in the Greatest City On Earth, London.  Tourists are a common and amusing nuance.  There is much fun to being asked where Big Ben is at Westminster tube station by an American and simply turning the man and his wife around, pointing up at the Elizabeth Tower and, for simplicities sake, saying “it is right there”.  That may or may not have happened but, you can’t give them too much of a hard time, Americans who have actually left their home county is something to be admired and praised.  But, armed with a wand, they are bloody lethal.  People wandering about with their head in an A to Z (I’m showing my age there) or Google Maps is bad enough.  When its raining, which is always, they have no comprehension on how to use a brolly properly, let along three feet of telescopic hell.  Just the other week, I was wading across the lake that used to be Horse Guards Parade and there was a couple of tourists with TWO UMBRELLAS, one for them, one for the selfie stick…  It is these moments of clarity when you know you are not mad, you’re just the only sane person left.  My first gentlemanly thought was to offer help and take the snap of them with Horse Guards in the background.  The rain was falling with a biblical might and I truly feared they may be swept away.  Then, in a moment of clarity, I happily left them to drown.  This is was not a nice thought and I apologise for having it but I believe that that was natural selection in action.  In my defence, I did have a sodden Aussie next to me who for some reason, known only to antipodeans, was wearing flip flops in London in July.  She is lovely, but clearly, not very bright.  Our destination to escape the rain that Noah would have started gathering in the ducks from, was what used to be the last bastion of the sane, the last refuge from pointing the camera in the wrong direction, The National Gallery.

The National Gallery.  I'm sure the blue sky was added in post...

The National Gallery.  I’m sure the blue sky was added in post…

The Supper at Emmaus By Caravaggio, 1601. Click to enlarge.

It used to be a magical place.  I say “used to be” because the narcissism of the visitors to the gallery meant that they could no longer effectively police their own no camera policy.  When the announcement was made last summer, I was heartbroken.  My favourite spot in London is a curved green leather chair in room 32 of the National Gallery, facing Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus.  The subject of the painting is the account in Luke 24 vs 13-34 where, following his resurrection on the third day, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples who were on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  The disciples do not recognise him.  Along the road they converse about the events of Jesus’ death and Jesus reasons with them from the scriptures to build up their faith.  Over dinner in Emmaus, Jesus prays and breaks the bread.  At this moment their hearts are opened they recognise Jesus and he disappears.  In true Caravaggio style, this is the instant he captures.  It is an incredible painting, one that changes as the light moves across it.  Famously, it has a number of problems with perspective, but it is a true masterpiece.  I love sitting there, watching the light from the skylights and the artificial lights inside the gallery play across the blacks of the paint, changing the depth.  The first time you see this, it is truly shocking.  My daughter, the first time I showed it to her, didn’t like it, she called it 3D.  Watching people’s reactions to this effect is wonderful.  Actually, it was wonderful.  The National Gallery is now no longer the sanctuary on Trafalgar Square it once was.  People are running around those hallowed halls, camera phone in hand, grabbing as many pictures and selfies with the old masters as possible.  I was explaining the painting to the Aussie and I was physically pushed aisde so someone could take a snap and wander off.  They didn’t even look at it…  That was worse than the American, stood by Turner’s The Fighting Temeraireear wigging my story of how in Turner’s mid’s eye he saw not the tar encrusted, de-masted hulk being towed to be broken up, but the ship in her glory as she would have been in 1805, when she saved Victory and turned the Battle of Trafalgar.  The American “corrected” me by saying that, as the movie (Mike Leigh’s superb Mr Turner) showed, he painted her as he saw her.  I could have slapped him, but, as before, being an American abroad, he received a reprieve.  Walking around the National Gallery is a zoo at the best of times, but it never used to be so noisy or people in such a hurry, camera/phone in hand, with the same crazed eye as a crack addict looking for their pipe.  The scrum around Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was unseemly.  Thank goodness they have kept the ban on The Wands.  But, and this at long last is my point, people do not think when their brain is in picture mode.  Standing before Da Vinci’s Cartoon, in its darkened room, behind bullet proof glass, the hushed tones of those looking on the work of the Master’s own hand was shattered by a woman who didn’t know how to turn off her flash.  Twice.  The Da Vinci Cartoon has survived five hundred years and a nutter with a shotgun.  It won’t survive another fifty unless people know the damage their own lazy, stupidity can cause.

This has become a high minded rant about me losing the calmness of a seat in a gallery.  But it is just the most visible, palpable sign of why I hate The Selfie.  It is the thoughtlessness, the disposibility and the carelessness of mind of those who are looking at their very own high-tech pool and letting themselves fall into it.  Most don’t drown as Narcissus did, they just drown the rest of us in their vanity.  Please, show me your world.  Let me see the wonders that move you and repulse you.  Share with me whatever you want.  Just get out of the way and let me view the world through your eyes, not your actual eyes.

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