Last week at Khardung La Pass, one of the world’s highest motorable roads, in Ladakh, I watched three elderly ladies posing for the mandatory picture next to the board that proclaims its elevation. At 17,500 ft, there was slippery ice, snow and chilly winds and an ominous sign nearby warning of oxygen deprivation: “Staying for more than 20 minutes is hazardous to your health.” The ladies, meanwhile, leisurely pulled out their camera and a selfie stick, conferred, then fumbled with attaching the apparatus, all the while trying to stay alert in the cold. Unable to bear it any longer, I offered to take their picture but they politely refused, preferring the chaos of fixing their hair and getting the right smile on, all while checking themselves out on the screen.
I love selfies. The strange, lopsided grin and topsy-turvy background, the attempt to stretch your arm out the furthest it can go, all to end up with an image that’s an unflattering caricature of yourself. There’s humour in selfies but nothing is more humourless than a selfie stick. Of all the bizarre inventions in the world, this has to be among the most ridiculous accessories so widely in use. It has become a must-have for travellers, especially those going solo.
Rather than lugging around a cumbersome (and cringeworthy) instrument suggestive of narcissism, isn’t it easier the old fashioned way, to just ask someone to take a picture for you? Nobody minds. I wonder if there’s a camera in existence with a screen on both sides, that allows those being photographed the option of seeing themselves before the shot. But that still doesn’t solve the problem of not having to bother random people to oblige, the strongest selling point of the selfie stick.
Anytime you’re out of your comfort zone, somewhere new, most of us feel the urge to document what we encounter. It’s not only about vanity. Immortalising the experience is part of travelling, so it’s hard to bear in mind that the moment is way more important than the image. It’s nice to create memories for posterity but you can’t live life through a lens. Besides, almost anything you want to click (other than yourself), there’s a far better image available on Google (for free). Not so long ago people travelled to learn, to broaden their experience of places and cultures. Now there’s a shift, a manic one almost, to insert oneself in every lush landscape on earth.
Since the phone camera came into existence, the photographer has become both, the observer and the subject. This has several pluses like self-expression; and an option to capture those little moments that take your breath away in exactly the way you see it. But like anything that is too readily available, the image has devalued because of the phone. It requires conscious effort to take fewer, possibly better photographs. Sometimes, instead of falling into the trap of trying to hold on to the exquisiteness of the moment for the future, it’s nice to simply look, and remember.