On a July trip to Namibia, my friend took about 150 “selfies.” I shot two over 10 days, for a lifetime total of three. He posted his favorite image from our African adventure on Facebook, adding it to the 109 selfies already sitting in his profile box. I showed my two photos to a handful of friends, sharing them in person, my picture in their face.
You’d think, rightly so, that Malcolm and I sit on opposite sides of the selfie fault line. I take anti-selfie photos: With the rare exception, I am never, ever in my travel shots. I only folded last month because I had a baby baboon tucked inside my sweater and there was no one around but the impish monkey to document the moment. Unfortunately, her concept of photography was to fling the smartphone around the tent.
My friend, on the other hand, is a selfie enthusiast. He remembers his first I-shot: a 2008 gondola ride up Pao de Acucar in Rio. And now his latest: a hilltop view of Luderitz and the ocean and rocky shoreline below. And true story: Whenever I asked him whether he wanted me to take the photo, he declined. The selfie was his signature style, including the mischievous smirk.
While I turn the camera away from myself, the rest of the world is focusing it inward. On Pinterest, I saw Nur Koksal grinning sleepily on a Belgian train, Kelly Teske Goldsworthy goofin’ around at Epcot Center, and Elena Scaccianoce peace-ing out in Vegas. Wish I were there, but not necessarily with you, since we’ve never met.
And then there’s the most famous selfie-indulgent celebrity, Kim Kardashian, who admittedly took 1,200 shots of her Kimself on a vacation in Thailand. Rizzoli is publishing a book of her self-shots in April. The title gets right to my critical point: “Selfish.”
My issue with this style of photography is multifold. In many instances, the self-centered subject overshadows what I consider to be the real star, the destination. The image is more Look at Me than Come With Me. In addition, the pictures are often artless, with clumsy composition, skewed angles and weak lighting. Most offensive: The photos often don’t engage or inspire or relate a story, the pillars of travel photography.
“A great travel photograph makes the viewer want to go there,” said David Wells, an International Center of Photography faculty member. “It can be about the person who takes us on that journey, but they need to pull us in. A good selfie can do that if it takes us on an emotional journey.”
I didn’t need Oxford Dictionaries, which declared “selfie” the word of the year in 2013, to tell me the harsh truth: The “photograph one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or Webcam and uploaded to a social media Web site” isn’t going the way of the daguerreotype. But as more sophisticated techniques and thoughtful approaches begin to take root, the selfie might just earn travel photo cred. Moreover, the right unself-selfie could even convert a nonbeliever.
But before I could even consider switching sides, I needed to meet more believers.
I first came across Janice Waugh, founder of the Solo Traveler blog , on Pinterest. Her photo, so charming and full of joy, drew me in immediately. Wrapped in a mint green pashmina, she beamed against a fetching background with an arched portico in Bologna. But what intrigued me most was the caption: “In Defense of the Selfie.”
Why, Janice, why?
The Toronto resident told me that she turned to selfies after losing her husband and trusted travel companion. Her reasons were both practical and philosophical. She can be more self-reliant, for one. Instead of flagging down a passerby to take a picture, she can use her arm as a tripod and snap it herself. Her husband’s death also meant the loss of a witness to her life. With a selfie, she can record the personal growth she experienced during her adventures and share it with friends and family members back home.
“When you travel, you discover who you are when no one’s looking. Selfies reinforce your sense of identity,” she said, and “trigger your stories.”
Rather than shoot-and-go, Waugh follows several technical and aesthetic guidelines that add polish to her photos. She uses a point-and-shoot camera, which has a wider lens than a smartphone and can encompass more background. She holds her camera-shooting arm at a 45-degree angle and moves it up five inches from shoulder level. She positions herself in the corner of the frame, so that her image doesn’t swallow up the scenery. She looks directly into the camera and snaps five to six shots. She keeps her favorites and deletes flawed ones, such as photos that are completely backlit or show a pole or a spire shooting out of her head like an antenna.
“It’s not about taking a portrait photo,” she said.
One of her most cherished selfies features an elderly Indian vendor she met on a street in Udaipur. They bonded over his wares, delicate books bound in leather. She snapped the shot of the two of them, capturing their meaningful encounter.
The selfie with another self — what a revelation!
Wells also believes in throwing other faces into the frame. He suggests sitting among the locals and matching your expression to theirs. Or, for a more avant-garde series, take selfies with statues. “Put yourself among the statues,” he said, “so that it looks like the classical statue took the photo.”
In a twist on the traditional selfie, he recommends highlighting other body parts besides the face. Point the camera down and wiggle those toes. “Showing your feet is a better travel photo,” he said.
If you like your face, which many selfsters seem to, Wells offers an artsier approach: Capture your reflection in a shop window or a traffic mirror. Or go ironic and embrace the cliche. For example, take a picture of you “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa and make sure to include the countless other tourists echoing the same kitschy stance in the background.
Finally, Wells says, “don’t be a moron.” He was referring to folks who put themselves and others at risk by snapping selfies during dangerous moments, such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Even worse, selfie-taking can go horribly wrong: This month, a Polish couple fell off a cliff in Portugal while reportedly trying to take a picture.
Alex Chacon, who visited 36 countries over 600 days on his motorcycle, takes a daredevil approach to his selfie videos; his technique is not for the timid selfie-grapher. The 26-year-old Texan affixes a GoPro camera to a pole and shoots while driving a motorcycle, scuba diving, bungee jumping, riding a camel and sandboarding, among other adventurous activities.
“I am not selfie-obsessed,” the Austin resident said. “This was my creative take on what a selfie is.”
Chacon’s signature move is the slow spin, hence the name of his nearly three-minute video “Around the World in 360 Degrees.” But he also shoots with the camera behind or beside him, which made me feel like the kid sister bumbling along after him.
“You need to find what’s unique, what angle has not been taken before,” he said. “Appreciate what’s behind you and not only what’s in front of you.”
Like Alex’s camera, I was coming around to selfies.
English photographer Adam Bronkhorst gave me the final push over the line, where I found Alex and Janice and, yes, Malcolm waiting.
“Selfies have a purpose. They give you perspective on your travels,” said the author of a book on using photo apps. “A landscape doesn’t mean anything.”
Now looking back at my trip to Namibia, my scenic photos seem lifeless, but my selfies with the baby baboon make me smile — and remember. But if you want to see them, you’ll have to ask me.