Big Smile, No Teeth: Only morons would take disaster selfies


  • Living
  • Sunday, 24 Jun 2018

Rescued migrants take selfies on sunset at the deck of MV Aquarius some 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya on May 12, 2018. Photo: AFP

This week in Italy, an unfortunate woman was hit by a train, and as paramedics arrived to treat her injuries on the tracks in the middle of the station, a man stood nearby taking a selfie of the incident.

He had his fingers held up in a V. V for victory? The victory of not being the person on the tracks who got hit by the train? It’s ridiculous.

Rightfully this has shocked and outraged Italians and, indeed, the world.

Unfortunately, taking selfies at the site of someone else’s pain is not uncommon nowadays.

Indeed, at the Grenfell Tower fire in London last year that claimed 71 lives, people were spotted taking selfies. After an earthquake in the Italian village of Amatrice that killed 300 and destroyed landmarks in 2016, tourists continued to take selfies.

Just doing a quick Internet search nets photos of people smiling in front of people who look like they might be drowning, raising drinks while ships burn in the background, and pulling a duck face trying to look model hot while flames rise from a car behind them.

These aren’t anomalies; they happen often enough to have earned a name: the “disaster selfie”.

As if selfies weren’t bad enough. The need to document yourself is so great that you just turn the camera around and shoot yourself. Two decades ago, watching someone turn their camera around to take shots of themselves would have been met with curious looks – now we don’t even notice.

But there should be a special place in hell for people who take disaster selfies because it’s really the worst thing you can do in a disaster.

For ages just taking photos of a disaster – especially a disaster that is currently happening – was seen as tasteless. You don’t take photos of other people’s pain and distress unless you’re a news photographer and that’s your job. But putting yourself into the disaster is the ultimate act of narcissism. It’s as if the pain and destruction happening behind you is just there to frame your pretty face so you can grab a couple dozen more likes on Instagram.

Let’s be fair.

If you want to take photos of a disaster that has happened that’s up to you. Let’s use the Grenfell Tower fire as an example. Maybe you pass the site, there’s a bunch of burnt rubble, and you think it looks interesting. Fine. Take a photo. If you roll up and start taking selfies at the Grenfell Tower site, it’s a little less tasteful. Especially if you’re grinning up a storm and giving the thumbs up. People died there. Lives were destroyed. Respect that.

But all of this is still better than taking a disaster selfie while the disaster is actually happening.

Once again, taking photos of a disaster that is happening in front of you – lives being destroyed as you shoot away – is tasteless but shoving your face into the shot whether you’re grinning or genuinely concerned for what is happening is tasteless and troubling.

Why would one feel it necessary to insert oneself this way into a disaster? For bragging rights? To say you were there? As a show of solidarity? If you really want to show your respect for a disaster, you need to not take photos of it and recognise that lives are being ruined and it’s not for your chance to take a dope photo, bro.

Do people need to be told this?

I think so. I like to think that the disaster selfie is a thing because we’ve all got so carried away with social media that we see disasters as opportunities to take an interesting photo. It’s like our selfie instincts are misfiring and as we identify the unique conditions that would create a cool selfie, we forget about others. Yes, that’s callous and dumb, but I prefer to think this is the motivation behind disaster selfies. Just a silly preoccupation with self. There’s nothing malevolent about it.

Because the alternative is much worse.

The alternative is people know that others are suffering in the background of their disaster selfies and they don’t care. This is much, much worse.

These people may make the argument that a disaster is happening anyway, they can’t do anything about it, so they might as well throw up the peace sign, grin like imbeciles, and take a selfie. To which I say, no, maybe you can show respect by not making other people’s suffering your cool selfie backdrop. This is not happening for you, this is something awful happening to them, and it’s not about you.

I just know if I were ever in a disaster and saw people taking selfies, it will give me extra motivation to extricate myself from the disaster just so I could chuck these disaster selfie-taking morons’ phones into a river. No jury would convict me.

Avid writer Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at star2@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co.

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