Why We Should All Get Selfie-Sticks
After standing in line for 30 minutes at what felt like a ride to Disney World, the doors finally opened and my group was ushered into a cavernous room. Painted directly on the wall in front of me was the Da Vinci masterpiece, The Last Supper.
It’s a surreal experience facing a piece of artwork you’ve only seen in books and movies. I felt a bit bashful, almost like I was meeting a celebrity. The fact that I had to reserve my ticket weeks in advance, and that each visit was strictly limited to 15 minutes only enhanced my “I-can’t-believe-I’m-here” state.
I approached the artwork and stared.
In a rare moment of suspended cynicism, a swell of spirituality washed over me. I felt certain that if someone born 500 years ago could create artwork such as this, surely the world’s 7.5 billion people could eventually figure out how to end world hunger and stop all the ice caps from melting.
Just as my emotions were cresting into some sort of existential epiphany that would unlock the secrets of the universe to me, I felt three taps on my shoulder. When I turned around, a middle-aged woman with short strawberry-blonde hair and a giant DSLR around her neck stood in front of me.
“Can you take a photo of me?”
She framed her request as a question, but by the way she was taking the DSLR off her neck and handing it in my direction, it was clear that her request was actually an order. I accidentally blinked and found myself with a camera in my hands and my “model” showing me the camera’s zoom features.
For a fleeting second, I considered giving the camera back and walking away.
But I didn’t.
Maybe because I have the utmost respect for social decorum; most likely because I hate confrontation.
I took two pictures of the woman posing with the Renaissance masterpiece before wordlessly handing the camera back. She took a quick look at the photos, seemed satisfied, and then wandered off to a different corner of the room.
I tried reclaiming my state-of-mind from a moment ago, but it was lost. Within a few minutes, my group’s time was up. The church’s previously docile docents turned into resolute bouncers that politely, but firmly escorted us out.
On my walk towards dinner, I was fuming. Not having a witty retort at the moment of the incident meant I now had the pleasure of coming up with all the clever things I could have said. The more I obsessed, the more upset I got with myself for letting such a minor disturbance sour my entire experience.
But why was I so bothered? I’ve taken dozens of photos for random strangers before without having given it a second thought. I’ve even occasionally asked other people to take photos of me. Why did this interaction feel so much more intrusive? And have I unknowingly been the ruiner of other people’s metaphysical moments?
These were the questions I pondered during my remaining stay in Milan - triggered by the mobs of tourists taking selfies with the Duomo, Sforza Castle, and every plate of pasta they could get their hands on.
What I realized is that when we ask someone to take our photo, we implicitly make an assumption. We assume that the value of the photo to us outweighs the inconvenience to the person taking the photo.
We assume that the value of the photo to us outweighs the inconvenience to the person taking the photo.
And most of the time, we’re right. People usually do have 30 seconds to help a love-struck couple commemorate their trip to Paris, celebrate a family’s first vacation to New York City, or capture a backpacker’s solo trip to Argentina. Taking someone’s picture is typically a minor inconvenience compared to the joy it brings to the person asking for the photo.
But this assumption is not always true. Sometimes asking for a second of someone else’s time has unforeseen costs. The stranger we just recruited as our temporary photographer could have been in the midst of a deeply personal conversation with a friend, undergoing a spiritual revelation, or even just enjoying a moment of self-reflection. Although we can avoid certain people based on outward appearance - the single mom trying to wrangle three kids, the lovey-dovey couple with their arms around each - and target our requests to people looking bored or on their phones, there’s no definitive way of knowing other people’s internal state-of-mind. Someone’s entire life could have revolved around reaching this moment in time and we just disrupted their experience for the sake of our Insta Story.
Obviously, I’m dramatizing. But my experience at The Last Supper made me reflect on the favors we ask of other people. The person we ask to take our picture is compelled to say “yes” because that’s what society expects. As a result, it’s easy to take the favors we ask for granted because we tell ourselves the other person agreed to it - even if they didn’t feel like they had a choice. We tend to forget that every favor, no matter how small, comes at a cost to someone. And while that cost is usually outweighed by the benefit the favor brings, there are still instances when it’s not the case.
So this raises an interesting question: if in the vast majority of cases, asking someone for a picture is a negligible disturbance, does this justify the rare instances where our request is a major disruption? At what point do we recognize that the cost of capturing our perfect moment isn’t worth the risk of ruining someone else’s?
I don’t know the right answer. And realistically, I don’t expect people to stop asking for pictures anytime soon. Even I’m not above wanting a new shot for the Gram from time to time. But my experience being on the wrong side of a favor made me appreciate that asking someone for a photo comes at a real cost. Another human being is giving up time from their life to make my moment more special.
So before I ask someone to take my next photo, I suppose all I can do is spend an extra second asking myself whether the photo is really worth it. Will the photo truly capture a special moment I cherish, or does the photo just check a box in my mind? Maybe sometimes I’ll think the photo is meaningful enough to tap the stranger on the shoulder. But maybe occasionally, I’ll decide I don’t need the photo after all.
Or maybe I just need to invest in a selfie-stick.