Is the 'selfie' an act of self sabotage?

Or... evidence of the inverse relationship between the power of a photographic portrait and the degree of self consciousness in its subject. And so say all of us.

Her simple, unbridled spirit; Lares Valley, Machu Picchu, Peru Her simple, unbridled spirit; Lares Valley, Machu Picchu, Peru

On a recent trip to Nicaragua and Peru I set myself the task of taking portraits of complete strangers. It quickly became intoxicating. Not just the taking of the photographs themselves, but the exchange that occurred in order to take them. When it worked, something passed between us. A glimour of intimacy.

Stealing photographs of unsuspecting subjects without their permission can work photographic wonders, but more as a work of street photography than portraiture. And in my experience doing so, it often leaves me feeling like a thief.

This time I wanted my subjects to be willing.

My method, you ask?

With camera settings ready - when I saw someone interesting I would approach them and immediately ask, in very humble Spanish, Por favor, ¿puedo tomar una foto de usted?. If they said yes - and thankfully most did, I'd take several quick shots as fast as I could, then, with a beam of pride or similar show of glee on my face, present them to my subject saying, Mira, mira! Look, look!

A few subjects were less than impressed with this. Or maybe they were somehow stunned by seeing their own persona digital, as it were. But most were thrilled. Many giggled. Some were moved. If all seemed to be going well, I might take a few more shots, but often the moment had passed. In fact normally I found the best shots were captured within the first minute or so. Partly due to me trying too hard after that time - searching for the perfect composition et al.

A case in point. The photo at the head of this article was the seventh of fourteen shots taken during two brief bursts. The first six aren't much chop. And of the remaining seven only one other works well (see it below).

But the seventh photograph shines.

As it turned out, this delightful girl was more intent on finding a captive audience than eating the bread we gave her. Which is saying something given this bread was considered a treat by most children in this valley - we handed out dozens of buns to grateful, ruddy-skinned kids that day. After I took the first lot of photographs my colourful subject whispered something in Quechuan (her native tongue) to our Peruvian guide. She wants to sing us a song, he said.

I could hardly hear her song, but sing she did. Our guide recognised it as an old Andean folk song. One of her feet tap-tapped the stony path.

It struck me how unaware she seemed to be of my camera. Of being photographed. She just wanted to sing. Perhaps as thanks for the bread. Or possibly just because she liked singing and we were there. Captive for this brief exchange.

There is a chance this child has never seen a photograph of herself. The people of the Lares Valley have precious little technology and few if any mobile phones and cameras. Electricity is available but limited. This may explain her lack of self consciousness, even while being photographed. Part of the first photograph's power comes from this. And from her joy, her simple unbridled spirit... a perfect subject.

Or perhaps, I hear you say, it was merely the unselfconsciousness of a wee child.

But then there was this lot. Exhibit B!

A family, I guessed. Extended, immediate, or by association; but a family no less. Huddled together and hanging out by the side of the trail. As if waiting for us.

Had they heard of the bread-carrying foreigners?

Or had they simply not yet grown tired of this view?
But wait, scroll up and take another look at their faces!

Can you imagine those kids taking selfies?

What about these kids?
What about this graceful young woman?
What about this hen?

What's so wrong with taking the odd selfie? I hear you say.

It could be argued that Selfies are a symbol of things unwell. A canary in the coal mine. I will go so far as to posit that the act of taking a selfie might, if indulged more than occasionally, cause us harm. In that we do ourselves harm when we obsess about visual appearances and when we identify more with the finely lit, well cropped, lip-pursed, double chin hid, digital representation of ourselves, than with the full throttle human being we are behind that image.

But wait... me thinks I protest too much.

After all, this started out as a way to showcase my portraits.

So if you're still there, lets look at a few more beautiful humans who I claim do not suffer a jot from the absense of habitual selfie-ing in their lives.

Nicaraguan Barrios Granada

Their tees really add something.
This Nicaraguan gentle-man reminds me of my father. Bless your soul, Frank.

The lass in the blue smock works as a fishmonger at the Granada markets.
Along with these two women. The newspaper is for the flies.
The way this man is holding his wife.
Here's one more sweetheart.
And no, your eyes are not deceiving you; thats a fridge-free, Nicaraguan butcher.

Although I may not have provided a bell-curved weight of statistical data to support my thesis, I do think I've demonstrated an idea here. An idea based on an experience and perhaps a little intuition. Hell, call it a metaphor. But you'll have to go a long way to get me to see the value of our current obsession with the selfie and I hope that this parade of beautiful souls will do one thing. Remind you of the beauty of simply being yourself and the power that can rise from that.

Okay, that's two things.

With respect.

Profile of Shane Nagle

Shane Nagle

Designer, photographer, illustrator & professional showoff; Shane will shoot anything that moves. “Loud, heap miseries upon us yet entwine our arts with laughters low.” - James Joyce, FW 259.7-8