Every man for himselfie

selfiesAll along the Sea Point promenade friends are taking pictures of each other.

Behind the apartment blocks rises Lion’s Head, smoothed by the evening sun, golden against the dusk on the crags of Table Mountain beyond; but it is the sea and the sunset that have seduced the photographers.

As if caught unawares by the beauty and anxious that it will slip away before they have captured it, they fumble and fret with their cameras and phones, poking at functions they haven’t used before, hoping that the right finger on the right icon will solve the problems of contrast that are turning their friends into black blobs in front of a nuclear fireball.

Tourists from the Levant bark advice at the photographer, all miming how he needs to turn the camera and push the correct knob, some gesturing at the disappearing sun as if accusing it of ruining the picture.

There are no such concerns for the Japanese students further down the sea wall: their camera is the love child conceived during a one-night stand between Steve Jobs and the Hubble telescope. For them, the problems of photography seem to be emotional rather than technical.

The moment that camera murmurs to them in a soothing voice that it is feeling confident of taking the most perfect digital image of all time, and pulls focus from their chin pores to the surface of the sun and back, the students transform. Where before they have shuffled along, thumbs hooked in the straps of their Hello Kitty backpacks, looking rather unimpressed by Sea Point, now they snap into a half-crouch, their hands held up in peace signs, their faces contorted into a strange formalised idea of cuteness. It is a simulation of a zany smile, replicated identically in each photograph; a Japanese animator’s interpretation of an American copywriter’s fantasy of a five-year-old seeing a rainbow for the first time.

Some way off, leaning against the railings, a solitary figure raises a smartphone to take a picture. At first it seems he is trying to frame the mountain, but then he shifts, dropping his shoulder, lifting his chin, slipping into a pose of studied nonchalance, and it becomes clear that he is photographing himself against the sunset. He is taking a selfie.

I am no expert on selfies. In fact I hardly see them anymore. There are simply too many to notice: Snapchat, a site that involves snapping and chatting, reportedly processes 350million photographs a day, the vast majority of which are selfies. They are everywhere, and have therefore become invisible.

Then again, perhaps we’re no longer noticing selfies because we’re realising that most are not pictures to be looked at but simply the by-product of a moment, no more deserving of study than a single laugh at a party, a hug between friends on the street. They are photographic sweat, endlessly produced, endlessly washed away by time and events.

But the lone picturesque selfie, ah, this is another thing altogether. This is a picture being taken to be looked at, taken in the hope that some unknown viewer will, even for just a brief moment, admire the photographer. This is the dog in the pound, wagging its tail for those few seconds that you walk past, assuring you that it is remarkable, loyal, a good dog worth taking home. I find it terribly sad.

Fans of selfies would say I am over-thinking their production and meaning. An informal poll by the New York Times established that most people take selfies simply to create a kind of visual diary, a record of their moods across the days and months. On the surface this would seem to be a rather debased kind of diary, one that has regressed, abandoning the written word and then the spoken word to crawl back into the cradle and to drift off into a sea of vague emotion and inarticulate need, in which the only meaning is the human face, floating over us, smiling.

But then again, what is a diary but a statement of existence? Certainly the great diaries dazzle us with the insight or humanity of the diarist, or make us wish we had known them; but behind the minutiae of other people’s lives the diary remains a single sentence, written over and over again: I was here.

Every day our technology reminds us of our obsolescence. The more we try to affirm our existence by sharing photos and experiences on our gadgets, the more we see the world as an operating system that must be updated daily or crumble under the onslaught of bugs and security flaws.

Perhaps the selfie is a response to that terrible rush towards obsolescence. Perhaps, for all its technical wizardry, it is a hand-print on a cave wall, outlined in blood and ochre, human, familiar. Saying nothing more, and nothing less, than: I was here.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

Published by Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

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