In Defense of the Selfie

I traveled with Penny in India. Here she's learning the art of solo photography.

I traveled with Penny in India and I taught her how to take a selfie. Here she’s putting in some practice.

The selfie is getting a bad rap.

At least every other week I read or hear the word selfie paired with the word narcissistic and, to tell you the truth, it annoys me big time.

It all seemed to start when the Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” to be the 2013 word of the year last November. Apparently the word can be traced back to 2002 but only gained momentum in 2012 and then really took off in ’13.

When I wrote The Tricks of a Solo Photographer in 2011 I had not yet heard of the term “selfie”. I actually added it to the post a few months ago in case readers were searching for it on the blog.

My purpose for that post on taking a selfie was simple: to help solo travelers take photos of themselves on the road. Selfies provide great memories and tend to make friends and family more interested in your photos.

My purpose for this post on defending the selfie is also simple: to ensure that you’re not affected by this negative nonsense and continue to take photos of yourself on your travels.

Walking up to San Luca, Bologna. 3.5 km of Portico.

Walking up to San Luca, Bologna. 3.5 km of Portico.

The research on selfies and narcissism

When I began to write this the other day, I decided to look up selfies and narcissism and, to my surprise, found a few articles defending the selfie. You are wrong about ‘selfies,’ they are not proof of narcissism argues that the selfie is the result of social platforms such as Facebook providing an outlet for what is just the latest mode of “forming and reinforcing our identities by making them visible to others”. So, we’re not more narcissistic than those in the past, we just have this new social way managing our identities.

The issue of being visible is important. As we travel solo we are not visible to those who count in our lives. We are evolving without being seen by family and friends. While this is, to some degree, the reason for traveling solo, being seen by those same people is also an important aspect of life.

Me inside the City Palace in Udaipur, India.

Me inside the City Palace in Udaipur, India.

The importance of a witness.

When I lost my husband I lost the witness to much of my life. The person who knew me best, the person who knew all the things I had done, was gone. Losing my witness was a loss unto itself.

Having a witness or witnesses, being visible, is important to our sense of self. To our identities. Yet as we travel solo we don’t have a witness who will continue to be part of our life. This is why taking selfies is so important.

Returning home with photos of ourselves in front of a waterfall we’ve just hiked to, with a new friend we’ve just made, at one end of a landmark bridge we’re about to cross… with these selfie photos we have the goods with which to make the witnesses to the rest of our life witness to our growth as solo travelers as well.

Yes, prepare for all weather possibilities when you pack. We climbed the Great Wall of China in the rain.

Climbing the Great Wall of China in the rain.

Five reasons selfies are great

For clarity, let’s enumerate why selfies are good things. I’ll start with five. Perhaps you can add more reasons in the comments.

  1. A selfie is a great, weightless, inexpensive souvenir.
  2. Friends and family want to see pictures of you more than of pretty places. They’ll happily view your photos with you.
  3. As you’re taking a selfie it becomes evident that you’re traveling solo so you may meet new people as a result.
  4. With a selfie, the important people in your life can witness a more complete you.
  5. Selfies help complete the record of your life. Looking back through travels, they will be more meaningful with selfies than without.

 

  • Lisa

    I have travelled solo for years and never taken a ‘selfie’. I love looking at my travel pics and it doesn’t make me feel I wasn’t really there just because I am not in all of them. Friends or family who are actually interested in my travels don’t seem to lose interest in looking, just because I am not in them, either. Sometimes I do want to be in a pic and I ask someone to take one, often starting up a whole conversation, which I enjoy. I don’t necessarily agree that ‘selfies’ are pure narcissism, but I do think people can get a bit self-obsessed and this increases it. Personally, my favourite travel pics are of life around me as I travel, not a close up of me posing in front if some landmárk- the locals I interact with as I travel make far more interesting viewing than I do!

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  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Love it! Thanks for sharing Faith.

  • Faith Dugan

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10152181566658951&id=23497828950

    Saw this today and thought it would be worthwhile to share

  • Mark Northcott

    Selfies are really hard to do esp if you use a SLR camera but you can mostly find something to prop the camera on or find a nice person to take the picture (I have never been refused yet, people are so nice).
    Also,If you are travelling solo then you can’t take pictures of someone else at iconic locations so what I do is take pictures of a stuffed cat (Nekobusu). This is also very popular and many people smile when they see it or ask to have a picture taken with it.
    I have also met many people with similar “travel pets”.

  • Leah, Best Travel Gear

    This is one of the best, most heartfelt posts I’ve read here. Thanks for sharing and for being open and vulnerable with your readers. Very insightful! I never thought of it this way but I think you are spot on.

  • Cindy Van Vreede

    I just upgrade my phone to one that will allow me to take selfies. I wish i had the new phone with me on Mother’s Day this year when I was taking flight in a 1929 bi-plane.

  • Sarah

    I’m not a big taker of ‘selfies’ as a general rule and travelling solo can me sometimes that you have to do it. I don’t necessarily agree with the concept but in saying that I think there is a difference between a ‘selfie’ as a traveller and a ‘selfie’ in normal everyday life… plus I hate having my photo taken at the best of times.. haha

  • CoconutBar Kuşadası

    İf u get dslr camera with remote control then ı’m sure take much better selfies photographs just a quick tip for you guys …

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    love the spin on the spelling. :)

  • Lori

    “Witness to my life”. How beautifully poignant and elegant and such an insightful way to sum up what is lost when we lose people in our life. I’ve lost a bunch lately (not due to death) and your words really speak to my heart.

    As far as selfies go I used to think it was kind of pathetic to have to take a photo of one self. Like don’t you have any friends to take a photo? It’s pretty much culturally normal now… I didn’t realize there was still a stigma attached until I read your article. I have a lot of fun taking silly selfies and love to look at others’. My children take it as totally normal and take some hilarious photos of themselves. It’s also a chance to be as goofy as you want without a witness… And you can destroy te evidence! Like online dating, it’s culturally acceptable and you don’t have to lie about it any more!

    I think it is line travelling or dining solo. You feel like a loser until you have evolved enough to realize that it takes confidence t go it alone and way more fun!. I have so many wonderful experiences and meet so many interesting people alone that I never would if I were absorbed with a companion.

    A little off topic but Have you ever accidentally taken a selfie with your phone with the phone on your lay and you looking down at it? OMG. Worst angle ever!

    Posted as I sit here sola at a bar in Mexico :)

  • Vonny

    I like “cellphies” to capture the moment, I live and work in China and ‘cell phone’ cameras allow us to do just that…me, at a point in time. Vonny.

  • Gwen Menz

    Just came back from a week in Tucson, AZ, visiting my brother and his family. After reading your post above I made sure to take several selfies at one of the state parks. It’s a bit difficult with a digital SLR, but I did my best —- thanks for the great post!

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Hi Louise,

    My heart goes out to you. I know only too well how you feel . Enjoy your travels and take lots of fabulous photos of yourself. Perhaps you’ll share one for our Thursday Pic of the Week.

    Janice

  • LouiseT

    In May, I will venture out on my first big trip since my husband passed away in May 2012. I have extremely mixed feelings about the whole thing, and while I will travel some parts on my own, some in a group, your comment about losing “the witness to my life” really hit home for me. I hadn’t even started to think about taking photos, selfies or otherwise. But after reading this, I know I will take lots of selfies to ensure others can bear witness to my life and to give me something to look back on in the years to come, and remember my first time solo. Thank you.

  • Claudia

    Last year I travelled solo through Thailand and looking back, my favorite pictures are the ones with me in it. No selfies though, I had them taken by other people. Unfortunately, selfies are hard to do with a SLR camera. So, next time, I’ll bring a smaller camera and take lots more selfies.
    I think there is a big difference between travel selfies and selfies you take of yourself just to focus on you (and take hundreds of them) and feeling the need of sharing every picture with the whole world…

  • Mary Bartnikowski

    Selfies, as they are now called, are remarkably fun. I travel solo 100% of the time so who will take that shot of me that I need? Yes, sometimes, I do ask people to take it for me, but being a pro-photographer when I take it I know I’ll get a good shot and oftentimes when you ask someone else it is blurry. I quite like doing it and suddenly started doing selfie youtube travel videos a few years back and greatly enjoy doing them. Your friends and others enjoy it too as the article says – seeing sights and views is not as fun as seeing people you know almost being trampled by elephants or eating unidentifiable food in Burma. Way more interesting!

  • 1KenSmith1

    I completely agree that selfies are getting a bad rap. It’s curious as to why some people even care whether it’s a selfie or a photo taken by somebody else. Maybe it’s a fad, a meme, adopted by those who don’t have the energy to develop their own thoughts.

    Your photos on your blog are an important and enjoyable feature, telling a story as to where you are and what you are doing. Thanks for the link to your earlier selfie post — I had missed that one.

    I like selfies. I’m even going to buy one of those hand-held monopods at the next opportunity (can’t find one here in Mexico).

    For more than 40 years, I have been making a different sort of selfie photo. I compose the photo for where I will be sitting or standing, get the proper settings, then ask somebody to take my photo. Even where I don’t speak the language, I have always been able with hand gestures to get strangers to take the photo.

    At the top of my blog, which I’m not updating much lately, I took five thumbnail images of myself and made a banner. This banner quickly tells site visitors that I travel to various countries. Take a look: http://kvsmith.com

  • Teresa Vincent

    I think most people that criticize the “selfie” either lack self esteem or never travel solo. I used to hate having my picture taken (VERY self conscious) but now I embrace it and “Solo Selfie Photo Shoots” are my favorite! Not only am I capturing a memory for myself, I always end up making bystanders smile as they watch me strike a pose after setting up my self timer function and gorilla pod :-) As a bonus, they usually hang around and offer to take a picture for me. Never be concerned with what others think. They just lack your courage, sense of fun, and creativity.

  • Victoria Milner

    A lovely post that eloquently hits negativity on the head. I don’t take too many selfies but usually they are spur of the moment and often with loved ones. It’s no more narcissitic than posting anything else on Facebook and like you say it’s providing a witness. What can be wrong with that?

  • Suman Doogar

    Great article, I take selfies most of the times when travelling alone or even when travelling with friends. At times I have seen people giving a weird look when I try to take a selfie but it did not demotivate me in any sense. Long live the Selfie.

  • Al Alfi D

    I like your post on taking selfles. To address this topic, I take selfies all the time while on travel myself, alone or with friends. Everyone is entitled to experience the moment, to enjoy the place or city they’re visiting . It is definitely an invaluable souvenir , no doubt about it.