Selfies: How photography might lose its soul


Wow, look at me at Auschwitz, isn’t it great? The arrival of the high quality camera as a standard feature on smartphones has brought with it not only an important news tool, but in the wrong hands a tool for contemptible behaviour by ignorant, insensitive voyeurs. Above, a group of tourists at the notorious gates of Auschwitz smiling for a selfie

PHOTOGRAPHERS today produce powerful images using sophisticated equipment, from dangerous places like Sudan and elsewhere, and places not necessarily dangerous, but containing crucial images. Such as the heartrending picture of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy on a Greek beach in 2015, one of 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, encapsulating the extraordinary risks refugees took to reach the west.

These photographs provide visual insight into situations ordinary people would not have access to. And the images are distributed wider and faster than in previous eras on the internet, with more immediate effect. Many cameras also have sound recording capabilities, adding to their power. The downside: the internet also provides an easy platform for doctored images, for agenda-driven purposes or ‘fake news’.

Looking backwards, there are some pictures that almost everyone will know. On June 8, 1972, a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped a load of napalm on its own soldiers and civilians, resulting in one of the most iconic photographs of that era. This photograph so moved people about the tragedy of the Vietnam War that it helped end it.

It was a picture of a nude, burning 9-year-old South Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running screaming down the road towards an Associated Press photographer. It was outside Trang Bang village, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon. She had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing, screaming, ‘Too hot! Too hot!’

The photographer poured water on her and got her to a hospital, with third-degree burns covering her body. The Pulitzer committee awarded him its prize in 1973. The image rapidly spread around the world, becoming a form of shorthand for the atrocities of the War. In that year, America’s involvement in the war ended.

Photographs can define an entire moment in the history of a conflict and influence its course. The horror of the picture of Kim Phuc was echoed in South Africa in June four years later in 1976 in Soweto.  Hector Pietersen, a 12-year-old Soweto schoolboy was just one of the children protesting the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans. He was shot by police when they opened fire on the students. This resulted in a shocking news photograph of the mortally wounded Pietersen being carried by another schoolboy, while Pietersen’s hysterical sister ran next to them. It was splashed across the front pages of the world’s newpapers.

That photograph too, became a form of shorthand representing the inhumanity of apartheid, and the lengths to which its white enforcers were prepared to go in suppressing black people. The anniversary of Pietersen’s death is marked next Monday, designated as Youth Day.

Photography dates back to the early 1800s, with blurry images. It took a while until quality black and white images allowed news photographers to show the world in detail what was happening to civilians in the midst of conflict.

Before cameras were available as a tool, all we had were second-hand accounts of what had happened to victims and heroes such as Kim Phuc, Hector Pietersen and others that preceded them. Added to the essential list would be the photograph of the Jewish child with a yellow Star of David on his lapel coming out of a bunker at the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 with Nazi troops at his back. And we can’t forget the brave, lone man who stood in the path of a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen square in 1989, blocking their advance after the suppression by the government of the massive student-led protests.

Intrepid South African photographers, nicknamed the ‘Bang Bang Club’ documented, at huge personal risk, unimaginable violence between the IFP and ANC in the townships at the end of apartheid. Later, photographer Alon Skuy documented the 2008 xenophobic attacks countrywide, which were rife with equally crude violence.

Quality digital cameras are now a standard feature on smartphones. How would those scenarios play themselves out in contemporary, selfie-rotten times?

Would the photographer have had the urge to turn the camera on himself, with the victim in the background, in the name of the crude narcissism of our age?

Everyone with a cellphone can call himself a ‘photographer’, epitomized by the man – or ‘tourist’- who stands in front of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking a selfie of himself to send to his friends.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

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