On the 13th of January, Mumbai City officials announced that sixteen areas of the city are to be declared “no-selfie zones”. This was in response to a tragic incident in which three teenagers fell into the Arabian Sea while posing for a selfie. A passer-by managed to rescue two of the girls but drowned trying to save the third, who also is presumed to have drowned although her body has not been recovered. A few days later, statistics revealed that India has the most selfie-related deaths in the world and the unfortunate trend continued with two more people losing their lives in accidents in Jodhpur and in Doon.
These deaths are certainly tragic and, although the majority of incidents took place in India last year, there were serious accidents reported from across the globe, including one in America in which a person was gored while trying to snap a photograph with a bison in Yellowstone National Park and another in which a man was gored by a bull whilst partaking in the bull run at Pamplona. Statistically, there were more deaths attributed to selfie-related accidents than there were to shark attacks last year. It is a worrying trend and Mumbai city officials should be commended for taking steps to address it.
Other jurisdictions have tried to curb the taking of selfies in dangerous places with the Russian Interior Ministry releasing a pamphlet last summer warning that “A cool selfie could cost you your life”. Sadly, that is exactly what happened just two months later when a teenager died when trying to take a selfie on top of a nine storey building. On a website like Instagram on which there are millions of people taking the same types of photographs, it is tempting for one to go to extremes to get noticed. The teenager who died in Russia had previously posted risky selfies on Instagram; the one that tragically led to his death was not a once-off dare. If people cannot exercise common sense when taking selfies then it seems that the next logical step is to ban the taking of them in particularly dangerous places.
There has also been a rise in the amount of injuries due to the use of selfie sticks. They have been banned from theme parks and sports grounds in addition to museums because of the dangers associated with them. One visitor to the Walt Disney Park in California caused a ride to shut down for an hour because of his use of the device. It isn’t just because they are a nuisance; park officials feared that the selfie stick could inadvertently come into contact with the mechanisms controlling the ride. Of course, one could argue that photographs taken during the thrilling experience have always been a staple of rollercoaster rides (and a money-spinner for the operators). When the desire for the perfect shot overrides the need for safety, though, it is time for us to reconsider our use of selfies.
Safety isn’t the only issue in the debate regarding whether selfies should be banned. Even when they are taken in a safe environment, they can still be problematic. When I visited Birkenau-Auschwitz last winter, I was surprised at the amount of people taking selfies. There were some taken in front of the infamous gates and others in the yards. That seemed disrespectful enough, but some tourists took it further. One group of teenagers even posed laughing with their fingers extended to make a peace sign in front of the display of all the glasses taken from the prisoners. It didn’t seem appropriate in such a solemn and historically important environment, regardless of their intentions. Indeed, last year, an Israeli Facebook page was set up to document selfies taken at the camp with the intention of encouraging debate around the issue. It was quickly shut down due to its creator receiving death threats but it had the added effect of encouraging some of the people featured to remove their own photographs.
The selfie, which is usually associated with nights out and having the craic, cannot be an appropriate form of expression in places such as Birkenau-Auschwitz because it implies a sense of frivolity in what should be a respectful, solemn atmosphere. The same applies to selfies at more personal sombre events. Journalist Jason Feifer established a Tumblr page to compile a collection of selfies taken at funerals. It has been discontinued and the last image on the page is of Barack Obama, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The fact that even world leaders have adopted the practice might suggest the cultural acceptability and the ubiquitous nature of the selfie. However, surely there is a time and place for selfies? Surely the focus at those sorts of events should not be on the self but on the person who has died or the atrocity that should be commemorated?
The link between the taking of selfies has been extensively studied in recent years across academic disciplines. One view of selfies espoused by the media, such as in the May 2013 issue of Time Magazine is that they symbolise a rise in narcissism. However, studies investigating this concern have shown mixed results. While some studies, such as two recent ones published in October and November in “Personality and Individual Differences”, have suggested that there is a link between selfies and narcissism, especially amongst males, others have been less conclusive. Indeed, a forthcoming article In the aforementioned journal argues that there is no correlation between selfies and narcissism.
Although the jury is still out on the narcissism debate, it is undeniable that the taking of selfies causes problems at tourist spots which go beyond the safety element. Selfie sticks are obtrusive and irritating to other tourists and photographers. Others do not want to see selfie sticks in their frames, but with the rise in popularity of the gadget, that can be difficult to avoid.
Selfie sticks also negate the need to ask a stranger to take your photograph. For safety reasons, that seems like a good thing, of course. Giving your new iPhone to a complete randomer isn’t always a good idea. Again, however, like the taking of selfies in the first place, it all comes down to a hefty dose of common sense. Taking the photograph for a stranger can foster contact and positive memories of a holiday. When I asked an English family to take my picture on holiday, that question turned into a fascinating conversation about literature and film and it is something that remains as sharp in my memory as the photo is on my phone.
I do not think selfies are inherently a problem; they can be put to very good use, such as for the #nomakeupselfie campaign for charity a few years back and The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. I do have a problem with them when the desire for the perfect image takes precedence over safety or when they are used in such a way that is disrespectful or annoying to others. If people cannot exercise common sense then a ban unfortunately seems to be the only option. Yes, it is a minority that has necessitated this ban; there are millions of selfies taken safely every year. If the ban on selfies in Mumbai is successful, perhaps other places, such as Birkenau-Auschwitz could consider, it for reasons of respect if nothing else. With the worrying number of accidents in recent years, the authorities’ decision to try something new can only be a good thing. People are dying to get something the best or most novel photograph and it is a senseless trend that hopefully will decrease in 2016.