The problem with ‘selfies’

Sophia Noel Hoffman (left), 12, a Missouri sixth grader, takes a selfie with her family.
Sophia Noel Hoffman (left), 12, a Missouri sixth grader, takes a selfie with her family. MCCLATCHY

My partner Bette organized a vacation of a lifetime for her mother, LaFrancine, her namesake aunt and me.

It was to have been her mom’s 80th birthday gift in 2012, but breast cancer got in the way. With that battle won, we set out last month, boarding an Aeroflot plane in New York to Moscow, and then Venice, Italy.

We toured that beautiful city of canals before boarding the Norwegian Jade. The cruise liner sailed the Adriatic Sea, taking us first to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where we toured the Old Town, a prosperous, maritime republic centuries ago.

Our next stop was Athens, the center of Greek civilization 4,000 years ago. We toured the Acropolis, the Parthenon and Zeus’ temple. It was in these remarkable, inspiring places that I noticed something that kept recurring on our trip.

People from many countries were shooting selfies with their smartphones. Many carried selfie sticks, enabling them to shoot pictures of their groups against the ruins of ancient Greece.

When I saw selfie-committed folks struggling to get everything in the frame, I offered to shoot the pictures for them. They declined. On past vacations people didn’t wait for me to ask to take their picture. Even if they couldn’t speak English, the universal language included outstretched camera, a smile and pleading eyes. It always worked. There had been that kind of camaraderie among vacationers regardless of what part of the world they were from.

But this selfie sensation changes that. It is another in a growing, modern-day pile of individual over others. Technology enables it, further separating human beings from what should be our shared humanity.

Cellphones are just the latest devices, making it possible for people on the street and crowded public transportation to be oblivious of their surroundings and everyone but themselves as they tightly focus their attention on their little screens. What they lose are the wonderful sights and sounds of their environment, lost also are opportunities for great conversations that only chance occurrences could provide.

New thoughts and ideas that might have been exchanged go undiscovered because of our turn toward a culture of self. It shouldn’t be a surprise in our 21st-century world, where we have Facebook friends but lack deep, meaningful connections with real people.

Ours is a time of declining social capital and a retreat from others with whom people used to share meals at dinner parties, enjoy memberships in social clubs, play cards or vacation together, or just sit and chat with neighbors on the front porch. Half a world away from home, the culture of self is even present in the pictures people take as tourists.

But it is when we surrender to the culture of self that we become most vulnerable. There truly is safety in numbers, and we are stronger united than divided. The ancient people in the wonderful places we visited knew that. We need to relearn it.

Bette and I are good partners in pushing past others’ walls of self. We did it on the Jade, where we became fast friends with strangers, including Martina Huljev, whom we met on a return to the boat. Huljev, a Jade crew member from Croatia, helped us better navigate our time off the boat. There were vacationers on the ship, which was the size of a small city, with whom we enjoyed chatting and comparing stories about our excursions.

Also in our travels to Kusadasi, Turkey; Split, Croatia, and Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, I continued to avail myself to shoot pictures for anyone who wanted to be hands-free in the shot.

I got takers in Kusadasi, where we toured the House of the Virgin Mary, a Catholic and Muslim shrine. It was outside at a Prayer Wall, where people had left thousands of strips of paper with their heavenly pleas that I asked to photograph a large family so that one young woman who would’ve taken the shot could be in the picture.

At first they hesitated, and then the woman asked that I shoot the photo with her smartphone. I was more than happy to do it. I hope that the culture of self eventually gives way to more togetherness in our modern times

Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at