“If you want something that’s guaranteed to have droplets, it’s your phone,” said Dausey, an epidemiologist and provost at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “The smooth surface is ideal for spreading the virus.”
Asking a stranger to take your photo, or fulfilling the favor, could conceivably violate several guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to handling a high-touch surface, parties on both sides of the lens will need to cross the social distancing red line twice — once to hand over the gadget and again to retrieve it. In addition, most people remove their masks for photos. Depending on the outcome of that encounter, your photo may mark an entirely different occasion.
“It’s possibly a dying art,” said Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every country in the world, who often relies on others to document his adventures. “Maybe not on a golf course or hiking, but if I were in a super touristy place, I would have some serious concerns.”
In pre-coronavirus times, travelers would boldly approach passersby and hand over their camera or phone, a gesture as universally recognizable as a smile or thumb’s up. In destinations beset with petty crime, visitors might proceed more cautiously, searching the crowd for someone with a cherubic face or fancy gear. The rise of the selfie and its appendage, the selfie stick, has weaned us off our dependency on randoms. David Campany, managing director of programs at the International Center of Photography in New York City, said the selfie is emblematic of a societal shift toward self-reliance and isolation. The photo-ask, he said, is a vestige of a more solicitous age. “It has an old-fashioned feel to it,” he said. “You are trusting someone else to represent you. It’s a touching moment of social exchange.” I asked him whether it can survive the global crisis. “It could be the death knell,” he replied. “Sad.”
Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com and Frommer’s guidebooks, won’t shed any tears if the practice disappears. Its demise will lower her stress levels. “I’d go into a mini-freakout about whether my photography skills were up to snuff,” she said. “I never want to disappoint anyone.” Shakeemah Smith, a travel influencer, deems the habit an inconvenience that steals precious sand from her hourglass. However, when a family approached her in Antigua last month, she obliged. “I felt that it would be somewhat rude to say no,” she said. “So I’m like, okay, here’s the best five seconds of their day.”
Professional photographers aren’t ready to write the eulogy yet. They say selfies are appropriate for playful, social-media-ready images, but if you want a well-composed group shot with context and complete human forms, you’ll need an assistant behind the lens.
“I recognize the challenge and pride in composing a good image, and there is an added level of pride when that shot is completely executed by oneself, of oneself,” said Eric Guth, a freelance photographer and instructor aboard Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic vessels. “With that being said, there is a time and place when there are not enough hands for the job.”
Guth, who shoots for such esteemed outlets as National Geographic, considers the role of spontaneous documentarian an honor. “It’s often flattering when someone picks you out of the crowd to help them capture a lasting moment,” he said. Rania Matar, a photographer and teacher at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, embraces the human connection made in 1/60th of a second. “Our connectivity is so important,” said Matar, who has spent the pandemic photographing Boston-area residents through their windows. “I don’t want to lose it.”
Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, has empirical proof of the practice’s psychological and social benefits. Last year, he and a colleague, Xuan Zhao, conducted a study that involved strangers (“requesters”) asking strangers (“helpers”) to take their photo in a Chicago park. Of the 57 requesters, 53 recorded a successful interaction with the first person they approached; the remaining four achieved their goal with a second individual.
“The expectation was that people don’t want to help, but people reported feeling very happy doing something for others,” said Epley, who presented his findings at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in June last year. “They felt surprisingly happy in these little moments of connecting with a stranger.”
Of course, we shouldn’t jeopardize our health for an endorphin rush and a keepsake. Previously, I never hesitated when asked, “Do you mind . . .?” With the number of infections rising, maybe I should. But I hope the wariness is temporary: I do not want another human link to break, nor do I want to see vacation photos transform into an album of head shots.
I decided to test my stance on the issue. On the second day of the National Zoo’s reopening, most people were aiming their cameras at the animals, not each other; a mother actually shooed her children out of her shot of an elephant. No one asked for my assistance, but I stumbled on a Rockwellian scene I couldn’t resist: a father preparing to photograph his two little boys, whose faces were smudged with ice cream. As he motioned for the mother to squeeze into the frame, I felt the question pop out of my mouth. The dad accepted my offer, and I snapped several photos of the sweet and sticky family. I returned his phone, then speed-walked to the sanitizer dispenser by the Great Ape House.
I continued my study at Burnside Farms in Virginia. In the sunflower field, I overhead a couple ask parents with a toddler and a puppy if they wanted help with their photo. The mom demurred, later telling me they had been so careful since March, they weren’t going to blow it for one picture. However, none of the other visitors seemed to worry. Two sisters who had assisted three friends posing with their Siberian husky said they had received antibody tests and were healthy. A guy who had snapped a family crouching by the waist-high stalks said he was safe because they were outdoors and he washed his hands regularly.
As the sun started its descent, I watched a clan of six wearing yellow garments (females) and white polos and khakis (males) arrange themselves among the blooms. A man stood a few rows away, clicking away on their phone. After he returned to his girlfriend, the parents lined up the kids and instructed them to open their sunflower umbrellas. I considered opening my mouth but clamped it shut. They already had one family photo. Plus, I was running low on sanitizer.