I can’t remember what it used to be.
I know that when I was in Europe a few years ago, there was something that everyone on the streets was hawking, the latest tourist must have, an item whose name became a cry that you would hear over and over as you walked past, as they tried to sell it to you.
I can’t remember what it used to be, but I know what it is now. Walking around heavy tourist traffic areas in cities like Rome, Lisbon, and Barcelona the last few weeks, there are two words that you hear on constant repeat, every few metres or so:
“Selfie Stick?” “Selfie Stick?”
It’s the street vendors’ current offering of choice, and therefore I assume the current tourist must-have. No matter where you are, for 5€, you can buy your very own phone holder on a stick so that you can more easily take photos of yourself in front of the various monuments and views to your heart’s content.
Walking inside busy sites like the Colosseum or St Peter’s Square, you only need to look in the air to see the results: hundreds of hands holding up hundreds of sticks with hundreds of phones attached.
The selfie sticks are everywhere. And I hate to be that person, but I have to say, I just don’t get it. Or maybe, I just don’t like it.
I think I’m allergic to selfies.*
Why do I think I’m allergic to selfies? There are a few reasons, to be sure. I don’t love many photos of myself at the best of times, so why would I want to take more of them? More to the point, I figure that I and my friends already know what I look like, so I want to get out of the way so that I can capture the amazing sites that I am privileged to be visiting and that I may not get to see again.
And being the kind of person I am, I also wonder what the seeming obsession with selfie sticks says about some bigger questions like why we take photos, and perhaps even why we travel.
If I take a photo of an ancient building, or a beautiful natural landscape, what is my intention? To capture the beauty of what I have seen? To preserve it? To remember it? To be able to show it to you so you can share in my wonder and admiration?
If I take a photo of the same monument or landscape with me in front of it, what is my intention? To have proof that I went there (and, perhaps, that you didn’t)?
When I share with you a photo I took of a beautiful city or an impressive work of art, I hope that I am inviting you to share my own sense of wonder and admiration, to see something of what I saw and to feel something of what I felt.
When I show you a photo of me in front of that same beauty, I don’t think I am communicating the same thing. Rather than “Look at this!” it appears to say “Look at me” or, “Look where I went!”
It seems to me that the focus has shifted from me inviting you to share an appreciation for what I saw, to me inviting you to appreciate me for having gone and seen it.
(There’s a reason selfie sticks have been dubbed “wands of Narcissus“.)
I’m also thinking that this can feed into a sense that travelling is about making sure you tick places off “the list” – that it’s about the fact of having been there and being able to say you went there, rather than about what you experience and learn while there.
Perhaps one reason this bothers me is because I do recognise that temptation within myself. Particularly when travelling somewhere like Europe where there are so many beautiful places and so many famous sites, it is all too easy to slip into the ‘tick off the list’ mentality. To lose the wonder and joy at being there in the moment, to miss out on what there might be to learn from what is being seen and experienced.
I know that I am incredibly privileged to be able to do the travel I have done. And I don’t want to take that for granted, nor allow it to become merely some kind of symbol of status or accomplishment. I travel because I want to take in beauty and history and art and culture, and I want to be changed by it and have my life and work shaped by it. I love knowing that the world is a big place, a diverse place, and that I am but one tiny part of it. I love being challenged, provoked, and stretched by experiencing more of the world and its people and I pray that that is what I can share with others – whether through stories, insights, or photos. But, no thank you, Mr. Street Vendor, I don’t think I need a selfie stick to do that.
* Caveat: Okay, I do think that selfies can have a place. Particularly when they are used to capture a shared memory between a group of people who experience an event or place together. I have a handful of selfies from my recent trip and all but one of them are of me with people I met on the trip, which is a lovely way to record and remember our interactions. The other one? It’s of me looking up in an art gallery: taken when I was aiming to capture the beautifully painted ceiling and accidentally turned the iphone camera around!