In defence of the selfie and snapshot – how to be happy wherever you are

By Ed Campbell

Picture of selfie statue in front of a monument in Teheran
Selfie statue in front of a monument in Teheran | Photo: CC-BY-SA Gumtau

While traveling, I have often been bewildered by the seemingly mindless hordes engaging in the practice of taking selfies and snapshots at famous landmarks. To me it always looked like people forgot about the histories behind these spaces and places, opting to rather engage with the surface of buildings, famous rivers, museums and statues through the eyes of a screen and a lens. Is the phone or camera not creating a barrier between the viewer and their surroundings so they do not have to really engage with the location?

During a brief elitist frenzy, I haphazardly explained these practices as an inability to recognize the pleasure of learning as an end in itself: from my point of view, there is little need in documenting the experience through endless innocuous picture-taking, because the action of learning about where I am IS the validation of the experience. As per usual, I attacked the global education system for not teaching learners to see learning as more than a painful chore, meant only for the confines of the educational institution and viewed as a mere vehicle to get somewhere else – getting a job, or passing an entrance exam.

And then I go back to my hotel room, write in my diary and start working on an article: I do not take selfies or snapshots, but I do find my own ways of documenting what I have done as well, therefore validating the experience. Egg on my face! And although my practices are often recognized as superior by academic institutions for some reason (the frequency at which we articulate some disgruntled comment about ‘the youth and their meaningless selfies’ at university being a case in point), a closer look at the affordances of the selfie and the snapshot as modes of communication might soon reveal that there is much more to these ‘superficial’ practices.

First things first, do we need to document and validate our experiences at all? This is a deep philosophical question about the ‘crises of experience’, desire and the aspects of modernity, grappled with by brilliant intellectuals like Adorno, Derrida, Foucault and Žižek. For now, it is safe to say that the documentation of experience, often seemingly arbitrary, has been an integral part of being human for a long time (the boring, endless listing of objects in Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” comes to mind).

Accepting that documentation and validation of experience are important at face value, I started looking into the affordances of the selfie and snapshot – genres within the mode of the still image – compared to me writing about my experience using written text like the article you are reading:

  1. The selfie and/or snapshot can be uploaded on a myriad of regularly viewed and visited online platforms designed for communication through the mode of still image, Instagram currently being the most popular of these. All this writing of mine is usually confined to a physical diary that only I will read. Additionally, all these words you are reading now is read by a far smaller audience than even the most fleeting image on Instagram (at least until I have a far more substantial following)… I sadly have to admit;
  2. The selfie and/or snapshot are left open to many complex interpretations – it is a rich resource for meaning-making where sign-makers can interpret the selfie as ways of showing where the author is, what they are doing, what they find attractive about the place they are visiting etc. With every word I am writing here and/or in my diary, I am slowly but surely limiting the amount of interpretations as I am trying to convince you of the way I am seeing things;
  3. The selfie and/or snapshot gets the authors of these still images to visually and spatially engage with their surroundings on a potentially deep level through the decisions they have to make regarding the framing of the photo: what to include in the frame, what to foreground, how to arrange themselves and objects around them etc. I reflect in my diary from a tired memory of undulating and fading images – while I was focusing on reading written signs and listening to audio guides, all in the glorious name of ‘learning’, I could have often neglected really looking.

My aim is not to appropriate the selfie and snapshot to some higher semiotic status, but to show its place among the numerous practices we could be engaging in while traveling. The so-called ‘crises of experience’ is often connected with expressed boredom – that what we do while traveling (anywhere) just does not ‘feel enough’ anymore. The remedy for this dissatisfaction might lie within varying the modes we favour for our own meaning-making and for communicating (documenting/validating) our experiences: if writing does not satisfy anymore, what about a few selfies and a snapshot? If selfies and snapshots start feeling tedious, why not read about where you are? What about listening to the music associated to your location? By moving through the connected landscapes of multiple modes, learning and ways to communicate we might find that we could be happy wherever we are.

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