Travel Selfies: It’s Hard To Overstate Just How Much I Hate Them

a group of people taking a picture of themselves

You often hear the phrase “It broadens the mind!” trotted out whenever the subject of travel comes up. It’s the stereotypical response to just about any comment that questions why we travel or why some people spend so much time visiting far-flung countries. The problem is that there’s a group of new travelers for whom this phrase does not hold true.

There is a significant proportion of travelers out there for whom travel doesn’t broaden the mind at all – no matter how many countries they visit. I’m not even sure this group can be called travelers any more. I think they are really just glorified tourists.

The difference between a traveler and a tourist was once easy to define – the former traveled the globe experiencing new cultures and interacting with new people, while the latter got on a plane to the nearest beach, sprayed sun cream all over their body and then lay out in the sun until they cooked through. The only thing they experienced was sunburn.

copacabana-beach-rioImage courtesy of Rodrigo Soldon via Flikr

The former had interesting stories to tell and were the sort of people you’d enjoy sharing a drink with while, the latter, were those who’d regale you with tales of how the fastfood outlets they ate at on vacation didn’t match up to the one at the bottom of their road. These are the people you’d cross the street to avoid!

But things aren’t so distinct anymore.

For a lot of people travel seems to have become an exercise in checking off somewhere they think they should visit (or which they’ve been told they should visit) before moving on to the next destination on the list….and then checking that one off too. A lot of people who claim to travel nowadays may well encounter new cultures and new places, but I’m not sure they’re “experiencing” them any more.

Nothing encapsulates the attitudes of a lot of modern-day travelers more than the selfie and nothing sums up the self-involved, narcissistic society we’ve created than the act of photographing oneself over and over again. You may as well go to the nearest tattoo parlour and get “Look at me! Look at me!” inked on your forehead…. and you’d still only look marginally more ridiculous.

selfie-1Image courtesy of Patrick Nygren via Flickr

Compare the photo album (digital or otherwise) of a traveler from a few years back with one from someone who calls themselves a traveler today and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Not that long ago, travelers took photos to capture the feeling and beauty of a place they were visiting. Today, a lot of modern travelers’ photos are taken with the primary purpose of showing off to their friends on social media. The number of photos of the old-school traveler in their photo album pales into insignificance compared to the number of photos of vistas, buildings and foreign cultures. For a lot of modern travelers, their album is the exact opposite.

Although I admit to believing that very few photos were ever improved by having someone’s face in them, I’m not against people wanting their photograph to be taken. Personally, I hate being photographed but I understand that, for some, it’s a nice way to create a reminder of a cool moment and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not complaining about families taking photos of their loved ones or friends taking photos of each other on vacation – they’re not claiming to be travelers anyway. I’m not even complaining about people having their photographs taken in front of famous buildings or monuments, as clearly there’s a time and a place for that too.

It’s the act of taking a photograph of oneself that I dislike and the number of times that such photographs are taken.

There are very few times when there’s a need for anyone to be taking a photograph of themself. There are over 7 billion people on this planet and most travelers aren’t intrepid enough to consistently be somewhere where there isn’t anyone else around. Travel only broadens the mind if you interact with people in the places you visit and, if you don’t even approach someone to ask them to take a photo of you, just how much interacting are you doing?

london-selfieImage: Davide D’Amico via Flickr

A few weeks ago I was walking along the Thames Path in London and I saw a couple desperately trying to take a photograph of themself in front of Tower Bridge. They were clearly having all sorts of trouble getting the shot they wanted, so I walked up to them and asked them if they’d like me to take their picture for them. They politely declined and continued with their struggle.

Fair enough, but just what kind of photo did they want to take that would come out looking better being taken from the wobbly end of a selfie-stick than by someone behind the iPhone? There is no such photo! That leaves me to think that it wasn’t the moment they were trying to capture or the scenery or the ambiance of London and they just wanted to physically take a picture of themselves. Why?

selfie-2There’s someone standing right there! Why are you using a selfie stick??!!

Image: Ton Schulten via Flickr

The proliferation of selfies is down to more than just the advent of the digital camera and camera phone: it goes back to something I mentioned earlier.

Being able to travel to far-flung places has become easier and easier, but global travel is often still seen as a bit of a status symbol to a lot of people. And people love to show off. What better way to show off than by using social media to post picture upon picture of you in front of one famous landmark after another? Whether you explored the landmark or learned anything about the country you were visiting is irrelevant. The important thing is that you can show your friends that you were at the Great Wall of China/Sydney Opera House/Big Ben/Copacabana Beach!

There are a couple of things that are ironic here.

The first is that you don’t have to be in the photo to be able to say that you’ve been somewhere. Presumably, unless you’re known as a compulsive liar, your social circle will be prepared to believe that a photo you’re showing them was actually taken by you.

Secondly, you can still have your picture taken in front of all these landmarks without resorting to a selfie – but so few people bother. It seems that engaging a fellow traveler (or a local) in conversation is too much like hard work nowadays. Instead, out comes the selfie-stick and they’re soon moving on to the next monument they feel the need to be photographed with. They’ve learned nothing, they’ve interacted with no one…. but who cares? They have a photo to show off with, so their job is done.

Note: if you have a selfie stick, other travelers should be allowed to beat you around the head with it snap it in half each time you take it out.

The fact is that, for a lot of people, photographs have gone from being keepsakes and mementos to being just another outlet for people seeking attention. And if someone is seeking attention then everything is about them and has very little to do with where they are or what they’re surrounded by. Their surroundings don’t influence them or educate them, because they barely notice them. They’re just a pretty backdrop for photos of themselves.

Next time you’re on vacation, or in a location that people like to visit, take a look around. Take a look at how many people are standing around gawping into their own camera lens rather than taking in their surroundings or interacting with someone new. Take a look at the photo they’re taking. Is it of anything substantial or is it just a picture of them that they can later upload to share with their friends? I’m prepared to bet that, for the majority, it will be the latter. For this group, travel doesn’t broaden the mind, it just gives them somewhere new where they can take their photo.

Featured image: Connie Ma via Flickr