Selfies: The good, the bad and the ugly

HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID: A Filipino taking a selfie at a religious procession on Easter Sunday in suburban Manila. Last year, Time magazine named Makati the world's "selfiest city," joining several other Philippine cities in making the country the "selfie capital" of the world.


    May 25, 2015

    Selfies: The good, the bad and the ugly

    IN JULY 2014, a 14-year-old student from Pasig City fell to her death while taking a selfie. One month earlier, a 15-year-old boy from Batangas shot himself while attempting to take a selfie, confusing the trigger of the camera with the trigger of the gun he had wanted to show off.

    That the selfie, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media", can lead to such grave outcomes underscores how widespread it has become in our time.

    Globally, it is estimated that one million selfies are taken every day, of which the Philippines can claim a significant share. Last year, Time magazine named Makati the world's "selfiest city", joining several other Philippine cities in making the country the "selfie capital" of the world.

    The cited accidents also illustrate, albeit in dramatic fashion, the consequences of the act of taking a selfie. But even if we do not get physically harmed, selfies can impact our lives in ways that we must pause to consider.


    First, selfies can make us lose sight of what's happening around us. Not in the literal sense of falling to one's death, but in the more figurative sense of forgetting the essence of the experience itself.

    Standing in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, I was surprised to see that instead of admiring Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, many visitors were busy trying to take selfies of themselves with the painting.

    On Mount Pulag, hikers trek very early in the morning to reach the summit before sunrise. The view of the sun as it emerges from the sea of clouds is a splendid reward for those who hiked up Luzon's highest peak. But many spend the two minutes it takes the sun to rise trying to take a photo of themselves with it.

    In the attempt to "capture" experiences through the lens of the camera, in the attempt to share our selfies as soon as possible, part of the experience itself is lost. Instead of making the most of our travels, we risk reducing ourselves to objects of our own photography, losing sight of the beauty around us.

    Second, selfies can condition us that having a photo with an event is a must. It's as if not having a picture with you on the scene means that it did not happen. Even "extreme" activities must now be chronicled with a selfie. Overwhelmed by the potential safety risks of the use of selfie sticks on roller coasters, Disney World decided to ban them altogether.

    Sometimes, this need to photograph ourselves with our experiences can be inappropriate, even insensitive. Wimbledon has banned selfie sticks during games for "interfering with spectators' enjoyment".

    Some Islamic clerics have called for a ban on selfies during the hajj in Mecca, calling them a distraction to the solemnity of the pilgrimage.

    When Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a selfie with the United States' Barack Obama and Britain's David Cameron at Nelson Mandela's funeral, the photo went viral, with many criticising the inappropriateness of taking a selfie during a funeral. Some writers are already coming up with "selfie etiquette", which is something to think about.

    Even the act of sex is increasingly the subject of selfies, often with grave consequences for the participants when the photos get into the wrong hands. We have people documenting their lives in ways that are very public yet too intimate for their own good.

    The fact that a growing number of employers now screen job applicants' social-media accounts hints of the possible consequences of this "overexposure" in the future.

    Finally, selfies can heighten the importance of physical appearances. The selfie, uploaded, is then offered for public approval or disapproval. When young people begin to see Facebook and Instagram "likes" and "followers" as a way of self-validation, they will pay more attention to their bodies and faces, particularly when the "edited", "photoshopped" self must be made to correspond with real-life appearances.


    The idea of capturing one's appearance is nothing new. Artists have made self-portraits since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs. Many others commissioned their own paintings. There was no need to "photoshop" paintings in those days as oftentimes artists took it upon themselves to produce flattering depictions of their clients.

    The birth of photography, arguably, "democratised" self-portraits. Soon, "glamour shots" of one's self were in demand.

    The first known selfie dates back to 1839, but it was in the 21st century when the term was coined and its usage exploded, spurred by the proliferation of camera phones and the rise of social-media sites.

    The popularity of selfies does not just speak of the technologies that have enabled them, but also of our ever-changing world. Whether for work, for studies or for leisure, more and more Filipinos find themselves alone in various places, and selfies are a way of assuring our loved ones that we are healthy and happy wherever we are.

    Indeed, sharing selfies in social media is more than an act of narcissism; it can actually be a very social activity when we have others in mind. We can thus view the selfie as part of emergent social technologies that keep people updated with each others' lives.

    However, we should also be careful not to be caught in a selfie culture that diminishes the value of experiences, heightens the value of physical appearances, overemphasises the need to be photographed and unreflectively overexposes the self.


    Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist.