Thursday, April 27th 2014, 8.33 am. 32 year-old Courtney Sanford is driving on Interstate 85 towards High Point, North Carolina, when the radio broadcasts the latest smash hit: Pharrell William's Happy. Smiling to the beat, Courtney pulls out her smartphone and snaps a selfie. «The happy song makes me so HAPPY!», she writes, uploading the pic to her Facebook profile, not realizing that her distraction has lead her into the opposite lane where she collides head-on with a truck. Her car bounces off the road, bursts into flames and kills her on the spot.
Compulsive photographers are easy to recognize. They're the ones who pull out their phones to immortalize food, monuments, sunsets, cars, drinks, their plane window view, the classic leg-shot by the sea and, obviously – god forbid we forget what their faces look like – themselves. Selfies can be divided into numerous categories: me-at-the-mirror, to show off how good I look in my new dress, me-with-my-friend, to declare our love for each other, me-with-my-drink, 'cause nobody can hold their liquor better than me, me-with-my-boyfriend, me-with-my-dog (yeah well, these two examples can basically be classified in the same category) and, although more rare and mostly during holiday season, me-with-a-relative. Even those who aren't savvy in maths can clearly observe that there is an ever-recurring term in the equation: me. Throughout the social network dimension – especially Facebook which totally obliterated the concept of online anonymity by overthrowing the use of nicknames – both real and projected individuality has overwhelmingly forced itself upon us. The Selfie is nothing but a new variation on our visual language where the I literally becomes the very centre of the image. What better expedient could respond to the impelling, ever-present need to tell and share our story? It was this very intent that drove Courtney to her death.
Me-at-the-mirror, me-with-my-friend, me-with-my-drink, me-with-my-boyfriend, me-with-my-dog. Even those who aren't savvy in maths can clearly observe that in selfies equation there is an ever-recurring term: me
The tragic nature of her demise and the fatality of the event itself attracted intense media attention, making this the first widespread news of a selfie-related death, although it was actually preceded by two other documented cases. The latter, in Russia and Spain, are quite shocking, for they first jump-started attention towards the issue and both involve high voltage cables. On one hand we see 17 year-old Xenia Ignatyeva, who slipped from a railway bridge on the night of April 21st and died electrocuted by the cables she had tried to hold on to for dear life. On the other, a 21 year-old Spaniard who jumped onto the roof of an empty train carriage parked in the Andújar station to take a picture with his friends and was killed by a high-voltage wire he believed not to be powered. It was March 15th and this anonymous pioneer of selfie deaths was unknowingly ushering in a long series of increasingly grotesque mishaps, all caused by one, fatal intent: to take a self shot. In the Summer of 2014 21 year-old Mexican Oscar Otero Aguilar took his shot a bit too literally, putting a bullet through his head while trying to snap a selfie of himself posing with a gun. This particular setting recently repeated itself in September 2015 in Houston, Texas, where 19 year-old Deleon Alonso Smith accidentally shot himself in the throat, and on March 2 2016 in Washington, when an undisclosed 43 year-old male forgot a bullet in the barrel of his gun and pulled the trigger, shooting himself in the face.
The gravity of this phenomenon is put into evidence by Me, Myself and My Killfie, a survey published in November 2016 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon with the intent to raise awareness towards the issue and introduce new measures in order to «help people recognize a dangerous situation before they take a selfie» – although it isn't quite clear which measures could possibly be introduced to further highlight the self-evident dangers of taking a picture in precarious balance over a railway bridge or with a gun to your head. They'll try to pin it all on recklessness, claiming that these were only a few fortuitous and isolated cases, but if you take a closer look you'll realize that it's quite the contrary. The online evidence alone is disquieting, from the improbable selfie-deaths vs. shark attacks infographic published by Mashable in September 2015 to the sheer number of selfie-related accidents – a number so high that it actually earned a Wikipedia page entitled List of selfie-related injuries and deaths.
36 selfie deaths were listed in 2015 alone and over 100 have occurred over the past two years, one more violent and ridiculous than the other. Gunshot wounds, electroshock, car crashes, drownings: these tragedies befall – and fall – more frequently than we think. From bridges, rocks and cliffs, like the Polish couple that in the Summer of 2014 decided to take a selfie from the highest point of Cabo da Roca on the Portuguese coastline and plummeted to their doom 140 meters below. This frightful episode took place in front of their 5 and 6 year-old who are now forever forced to live with the fact that their parents were idiots – not to mention the psychiatric care they will have to endure for the rest of their lives.
Gunshot wounds, electroshock, car crashes, drownings: these tragedies befall – and fall – more frequently than we think. From bridges, rocks and cliffs
Is it however possible to attribute this phenomenon to stupidity and egocentrism alone? In a world that is increasingly crowded with screens it seems only natural that an ever-growing number of people should become predisposed to communicate through images, a millennium-old language that has become powerfully widespread over the past ten years because of easy, relatively low-cost access to smartphones and digital cameras and the dominance of social media.
In this specific form of communication photography and sharing are on the same level, so it is constantly stimulated. We don't take pictures just to fix a moment in our mind's eye: we do it with the intent of sharing that specific experience with our virtual audience of friends or followers. The simple intuitiveness and high-speed performance of modern photography devices – smartphones in particular – has spawned generations of people obsessed with the constant immortalization and sharing of their daily lives to the point that the experience is utterly absorbed by the photographic media itself. As the internet would put it, being its own best critic: Pics or it didn’t happen. Six words that sum up the absolute essentiality of photographic evidence and the need to share.
The origin of the problem stands in the fact that, overpowered by the desire to partake in this language that they still don't understand or master, photo-compulsives will take a picture of whatever they find in front of them, without applying any kind of criteria or selection. They do not experiment or play with the language – they suffer it. «I really do believe most people are visually illiterate» British film-director Peter Greenaway once said on these very pages, «most people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing with images. Don’t understand them. Can’t make them. Can’t appreciate them ’cause they don’t have the vocabulary and the syntax to be able to have that same sophistication that everybody has with text». This language barrier, that can be applied to all visual media – from still photography to movies and television – taps into one of global communication's most exposed nerves. Film, music videos, TV series and photographs are part of our daily lives, but we are not equipped with the basic tools to truly understand them. We are surrounded by images yet we are oblivious of their inner grammar. We observe them with the same dumbfounded attention of a blind man listening to the words of a book that he cannot read.
We observe images with the same dumbfounded attention of a blind man listening to the words of a book that he cannot read
Yet, sometimes, without warning and without understandable reason, something leaves a mark – something that makes us claim that that movie, that image that we have seen is better than others. In his essay on photography “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes first brings forth the concept of punctum, denoting the wounding detail that catches the onlooker's attention. He wrote: «I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value».
But why? It's not just because of the emotional reaction provoked by that specific detail, but because the punctum produces significance by entering in conflict and dialogue with the purely documentary aspect of each image. It is our very inability to find the punctum that gives photography its deep meaning and that urges thousands and thousands of visually illiterate people to feverishly snap away, adding digital frames, crops, filters to add depth to pictures that under all those layers remain consistently insignificant. These snapshots drown into the sea of images that has invaded the net, escaping from the very mind and memory of those who have created them. Unsatisfied with the quality and popularity of their snapshots, the photo-compulsives – and we are all photo-compulsives when we let our fingers determine the shutter-action instead of our conscious eye – try to fill in the void of their not-fully-understood-yet-perceived triviality with acts of spectacularization. This mania drives them up bridges and cliffs, close to dangerous animals and in the middle of the tracks as the train speeds into sight, certain to take the selfie of the lifetime but inevitably ending up crushed (This specific scenario can be applied to 1 Pakistani man and 6 Indians, where the highest death rate has been observed). We jeopardize our existence in hopes of snapping a pic so exceptional that it suddenly acquires a deeper meaning. 18 year-old Romanian Anna Ursu was killed by a 27.000 volt shock as her leg brushed against a live wire while she and her friend climbed atop a train car to take selfies – “the ultimate selfie”, as the latter called it.
The vicious circle of snap-share-likes feeds off itself and has been involving a growing number of people – to give an instance, Russian 17 year-old Andrey Retrovsky was quite popular on Instagram for his selfies on the roofs of Vologda until he fell off a 9 storey building. Not knowing how to attract attention towards themselves, these people make their experience as extraordinary as it is empty and, obviously, dangerous. They are narrating something completely fictitious, that has nothing to do with their daily reality. These are people who are unable to actively partake in the creation of meaningful images and therefore serially collect snapshots on their profiles, leaving it up to these free-form sequences to create a lingual coherence able to communicate their story in a language that they themselves do not comprehend. Expecting images to assume full responsibility in explaining who we are is not a solution, for the sequence itself isn't strong enough to confer meaning to the discourse. Narration is not created by a sequentiality but by a consequentiality of events, so if the very intersections of the story (the photographs) are circumscribed to a superficial documentation of reality (lunch, holidays, nights out, job days) and do not have any deeper significance, then the resulting sequence will also be linguistically disjointed and meaningless. Ense it oes dake smnow, for example. If instead each intersection has its own purpose and context, then the sum will start making sense – Now sense make it Does? And to the eyes of the attentive beholder that sequentiality will become consequentiality, readable and understandable content able to convey a story – Does it make sense now?
In a day and age in which, from a purely technical standpoint, we are all photographers, we must hone our visual language skills and start truly communicating through images
The photographer is first and foremost a bystander and is therefore also drawn to photograph a specific place and time because of the aforementioned punctum. In a day and age in which, from a purely technical standpoint, we are all photographers, we must hone our visual language skills by learning to detach ourselves from photography as document – a vision that does not satisfy for it says nothing about us – and achieving a more intimate and meaningful dimension that finally allows us to truly communicate through images. Maybe we should learn to measure out photos as we do with words in order to produce something purposeful. Taking a minute to evaluate our snapshots will give us the time to actually live more, look at our surroundings and learn about ourselves through the lens of reality, finding that punctum that says so much about us and our personal take on the world.
This way, awakening our gaze and mindfully spotting those intersections in which the paths of our existence meet and unfurl, we will be able to finally satisfy the urge to share our story, consciously and completely, without throwing ourselves into the void and searching for lethal sensationalisms. Behind smartphone screens and photographic lenses, there is life – not of the pixel kind but real life – our one and only photograph.
English translation by Michelle Davis
Published on L'Eco del Nulla N.5, "Rete e tecnologie", spring 2017
Click here for the Italian version