Selfie Nation

Making the most of a photographic phenomenon. By Pamela B. Rutledge, Ph.D.

Image: Shutterstock.

Obama Takes a Selfie at Mandela’s Memorial Service

Even for heads of state, selfies can capture an extraordinary moment

It is not unusual for people to want capture extraordinary events, to celebrate a moment of a memorial honoring Mandela’s life’s work and a man worthy of celebration.  Even for heads of state, who are, after all, real people, too.  It’s not all that surprising, therefore, that a selfie or two might be taken. Thus we see a photo of a three-way selfie in progress with.  You can’t miss it.  It is rocketing across cyberspace.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmi
Funerals signal a profound change in a social sphere.  They bring together an extraordinary range of people who want to commemorate and acknowledge this passing.  This is especially true for the memorial service celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela.  We might also say ‘commemorating his death’ but for Nelson Mandela, celebrating his life’ is not just the glass half-full approach, it’s the more warranted.  Mandela made an indelible mark during his lifetime, showing himself to be tough, resilient, courageous and wise.  It takes an extraordinary person with tremendous mental strength to go through years of abuse and prison and emerge with a passion for peace, not revenge; to have energy, a joy for life, a sense of humor and, most of all, the willingness to continue to dedicate himself to leading the way to a new South Africa. 

As I wrote in a previous PT post, there are lots of reasons why taking a selfie is a normal thing to do even under difficult circumstances. They are quick, unplanned, somewhat discreet (unless you’re under the constant surveillance of the press), and capture a personal moment.  They are not narcissistic, they are life affirming.  They document a moment that celebrates the process of life, not just the happy moments.  As we all know, life is full of the complex, painful and interesting moments one as well as mundane ones.  Selfies elevate the ‘nontraditional photo moments’ that form the fabric of life and help make it a rich tableau.  From shared grief to unexpected moments, selfies allow us to capture a bit of experience to take with us, to process, to remember.  The proliferation of digital technology has democratized this documentation and enabled us to celebrate the diversity of daily life.

All experience is, or should be, precious because life on this planet is finite.  Nothing drives that home more than a memorial service.  I hope that the people of South Africa and the world can appreciate that taking a selfie is not disrespectful.  Who would not have the urge to document such a moment shared with remarkable people from around the world, gathered to pay tribute to an extraordinary man who not only brought change but will forever by symbolic of the potential within every ‘ordinary man’ to bring out profound social change?   Taking a casual picture is the act of a normal person; the very type of person that Mandela championed throughout his long life. 

Bush and Bono
The truth is that Cameron, Thorning-Schmidt and Obama wouldn’t have needed a selfie to have a photograph of their attendance at the service.  Swarms of photographers would have handled that just fine.  It would not, however, have had the shared tenderness of a selfie.  It would not have marked a moment of shared emotion, but they would still have had some form of documentation in their official capacities, not as their normal selves.  Most of the attendees don’t have the luxury of documentation by journalists. (As you can see by the Instagram posting of former President Bush and Bono at the memorial).  It is too bad that authorities restricted the use of cameras and camera phones for the many ‘regular’ people who came to pay their respects.  Rather than fearing documentation as disrespectful, the authorities should have embraced it as a way to let people carry a little more of the profound experience of Nelson Mandela home with them as a way to keep his impact and message both meaningful and personal.



Selfie photo: AP/Getty