We’ve all done it at this point, haven’t we; angled that way, twisted the other, held the camera higher, backed up – whatever it takes to get a good photo. For those of us on social media, nabbing the perfect selfie with a once-in-a-lifetime view in the background is pretty much peak Facebook, isn’t it?
I, for one, have never been much for selfies (or pictures, period), but I have taken them on my travels – from observation towers, at tourist traps, boat decks with the ocean in the background, with statues, even on roller coasters. While I do post some of them on my Instagram and Facebook accounts, I mostly put them in folders on my computer, labeled for each trip we take, so that we can look back on them years from now and remember all the fun we had. The ubiquitous smartphone facilitates that.
But it turns out that selfies aren’t harmless. In fact, they’re being called “killfies” as more people, doing stupid things in order to snap that ideal picture, are staggering and stumbling and plunging to their deaths. Documenting our lives has become a dangerous stunt, in more ways than the obvious.
Between October 2011 and November 2017, 259 people in 137 incidents died while trying to take a selfie, according to a study published last year. Most victims were young – mean age was about 23 years old – and (which came as no surprise to me) men outnumbered women three to one. Most common cause of deaths: drowning, transportation accidents, and falling from high places.
Celebrities appear to be leading the way off cliffs. A rap artist from Alberta was blown away after crawling out on an airplane wing while filming a music video. Two travel bloggers plummeted 800 feet while apparently taking a selfie at Yosemite’s Taft Point, and three stars of a YouTube adventure travel show dropped to their deaths at a waterfall in British Columbia.
A recent rash of killfies by total unknowns has further sounded the alarm. Just this month a 20-year-old university student died when she fell from a rock formation northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. Reports say she was repositioning herself for a photo at a popular scenic spot. Right around that time, a journalism student fell from the campus clock tower, apparently while trying to take a picture. And a 26-year-old Filipino victim tumbled down a Hong Kong waterfall while trying to snap a cool selfie. A woman was even mauled by a jaguar when she entered its zoo enclosure.
To be fair, it’s not just the young and the risk-takers who become so lost in the moment that they fail to gauge risk. A man in his 50s visiting the Grand Canyon from Hong Kong fell near the Eagle Point observation area in late March, and a 68-year-old woman was fatally scalded in a Chilean geyser, proof that it’s not just the young’uns who can be careless.
I can see how people get themselves in trouble. If the black rocks at Peggy’s Cove have taught us anything, it’s that people never think they’re going to be the unlucky victims, and position themselves smack dab in harm’s way despite better sense and even blatant warnings.
Regardless of age or motivation, these accidents are distressing because so many seem preventable, but also because the circumstances bring into focus an embarrassing truth about how we increasingly live our lives. If we don’t record whatever we’re doing, if we don’t share it, if we don’t earn comments and thumbs up and “likes,” our experience feels less worthy. As far as some people are concerned, without such validation, it might as well not have happened.
Perhaps it has always been so. Recording our personal history and showing it to an audience certainly predates the tech era. Thinking of those hunting scenes on cave walls, human chronicles have been around in some form since before the written word. But now the easy accessibility of cameras, combined with platforms to display them, has transformed the age-old desire to be seen and noticed, into a permanent state of being.
I don’t expect that need to end any time soon, especially now that we have found more convenient and efficient ways to elevate our selfie game. I do hope, however, that next time we smile into the camera we do so only after we have a look around. No picture is that important.