Earlier this week, a clumsy tourist taking a selfie knocked over the priceless 300-year-old statue of Saint Michael in Lisbon's National Museum of Ancient Art. Museum officials state that it’s damaged beyond repair.
Nuno Miguel Rodrigues, who was in the chamber when the incident happened, posted a photo of the destroyed statue to Facebook with the comment: “It’s the price to be paid for free entrances on the first Sunday of every month.”
Image via The Daily Mail
Unfortunately, charging admission to every priceless work of art probably isn’t enough to keep them safe. That’s because selfie-taking tourists aren’t limiting their destruction to within museum (or any) walls:
- In May 2016, another tourist destroyed a different Lisbon statue while posing for a selfie, in that case atop the Rossio train station in the capital.
- Last year, two tourists attempting to get a photo climbed on a priceless marble statue of Hercules at Loggia dei Militi palace, causing its crown to collapse beneath their weight and shatter.
- Two California women allegedly carved their initials into the Coliseum in Rome and posed for a selfie.
Search Google for “tourist selfie accident,” and you’ll find that art isn’t the only thing being destroyed.
In July 2016, a German tourist attempting to snap a selfie at Machu Picchu plunged 330 feet to his death. And, in Mumbai, a string of 19 selfie-related fatalities prompted local government to declare 16 selfie-free zones.
These incidents are so numerous that there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to tracking selfie-related injuries and deaths.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that rising numbers of tourist accidents and fatalities while trying to get that perfect photo op could be used to argue that we’re more distracted than ever by technology while traveling.
But, is the trend of taking selfies also detracting from the inherent rewards of travel itself?
Some Say Selfies Rob Travelers of Engaging Experiences
Travel isn’t just about what you see and do once you arrive in a new place; it's about the impact the destination and culture have on you—both through observing and interacting with others.
Acclaimed writer and world traveler Paul Theroux told the Wall Street Journal that he never takes photos, he said, because “people who take pictures lose their capacity for close observation. Without a camera, you study a thing more carefully and remember it better. Taking a picture is a way of forgetting.”
Theroux’s stance, in essence, is this: Selfie-seeking travelers are often more focused on taking the perfect photo to share on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and counting the number of likes and shares instead of living in the moment and observing, appreciating, and gaining cultural insight while visiting new places.
But, is it really one of the other? More to the point, is there any truth to the idea that treating photos as trophies to capture means you can’t engage in the moment?
While the answer varies depending on how much time you spend looking at your surroundings through a lens, at the very least, doing so deprives us of the ability to make memories.
Studies Show That Concentrating on Photos Makes It Difficult to Create Memories
Linda Henkel, Ph.D. is a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut who specializes in memory. She performed two experiments that studied the influence taking photos has on your ability to remember a moment.
Through her research, Dr. Henkel learned that participants who took photos of statues could recall fewer details later than a group who spent a similar amount of time looking at the art sans camera. (She did find an exception when photographers zoomed in on specific details—doing so had no effect on the subjects’ memory.)
Concentrating on taking a selfie instead of experiencing a moment affects your memory making abilities in two ways.
First, there’s what happens as we’re in the middle of an experience. According to Dr. Henkel, when we take in information, it activates certain areas of the brain. This process, called consolidation, creates a kind of gelling, or gluing together, of pieces into this coherent experience—and it takes time.
In layman’s terms, concentrating on capturing an image instead of experiencing a moment means that the neurological information doesn’t get the chance to “root” in your brain.
However, even memories that have been made need to be reinforced. Dr. Henkel states that this happens when you retrieve a memory—doing so strengthens the neurons that created it.
On the other hand, when you stop, glance, and snap, you’re neither engaging with the experience or following it up with thoughts or reactions, meaning that consolidation never has a chance to take place.
Taking Selfies Also Deprives You of Interaction With Others
There was a time when getting a photo to commemorate traveling to some far-flung locale meant having to pose the friendly question, “Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture?”
At the very least, asking strangers to snap a pic (hopefully) leaves you with a great photo. However, this question was once an icebreaker with other travelers, a chance to make a connection, and, in my experience, the start of some memorable conversations—and several life-long friendships.
For example, when my sister came to visit me in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I overheard a Korean family nearby and asked them to take our picture. We got to chat about my having lived in the South Korean city of Busan, how they liked traveling around Southeast Asia and shared a genuine interest in each other's perspectives.
When hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, I asked Leaf and Lotte to take my picture, then snapped one of them in return. We ended up hiking together for the next week and still stay in touch.
I’m equally guilty of my share of attempted travel glamor shots. But, the point being that so many interesting memories and enriching experiences from my personal travels are due to the initial act of stopping and asking someone to please take a picture—something that just doesn’t happen with selfies.
That being said, not everyone hates selfies. Some travel industry experts suggest that they’re actually helping the industry to thrive.
Selfies Might Be Bad for Landmarks, But They’re Good for Tourism
Here’s the flip side of the selfie argument: Photography has been an essential part of the travel experience since cameras became affordable and widely available.
After all, what traveler hasn't reached for a camera to preserve a moment in a far-distant land? Would anyone really go to the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, or a safari without taking a photo?
And once you have a snapshot, of course, you want to show it off. You could even argue that posting a pic to Instagram just the 21st-century version of inviting friends and family over for a night of sharing slides.
According to Sue Badyari of World Expeditions, posting photos on social media has brought big benefits for the travel industry. She says her business has seen a surge of sales in big-ticket adventure trips such as the Inca Trail, the Great Wall Trek, the Kilimanjaro Climb or the trek to Everest Base Camp – driven, she says, by images posted on social media.
“People read blogs, watch videos, and look at stunning images from Instagram, and they think, ‘Gosh, I’d like to do that,’” she says. “That perpetuates more growth for those type of trips.”
Selfies Allow Solo Travelers to Capture Their Place in History
Tourists post selfies online for the same reason that students at Oxford carve their names in dormitories and couples shackled their love locks on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris—to commemorate the moment, and for some, the achievement, of being there.
And, for the rising number of tourists who travel without companions, selfies are a way to share that experience with their network of friends, family, and followers who could not physically be there.
Obviously, the preservation of works of art and historical sites is a good reason for prohibiting tourists from climbing on top statues and inscribing their names just for a more interesting photo.
Doing so is disrespectful to locals, as well as the government's, archeologists and other preservationists who spend a great deal of time and money to safeguard these sites for future generations.
However, it might be short-sighted to deny the oh-so-human need to commemorate a moment.
The question boils down to: Is it possible to approach the trend of selfies posted by snap-happy travelers with a positive perspective?
The Key Is Remembering to Make Memories, Not Just Capture Them
According to Dr. Henkel says, the key to engaging in a moment and commemorating it is finding the balance. Thankfully, she shares some tips on how to both build and hang on to a memory.
“Go ahead and take the picture,” she says. “But make a point of including context.”
For selfie-aficionados, that means including more in the frame than just your face. It’s the small details that may not make for the prettiest photo—cars in the background, clutter on a counter—that can act as triggers to cue memory retrieval later on.
Then, don’t move on immediately. Instead, force yourself to stay in the moment and engage—a practice called mindfulness. You can do this by looking around and asking yourself:
- What aspects of your surroundings remind you of something back home? What’s new?
- Does anything that you’re seeing bring back memories?
- What’s your emotional reaction to your surroundings?
- What about it makes you feel this way?
If you can, jot down a few notes in the moment, remarking on the answers to your questions above. Then, later in the evening when you review your photos, write down a few more details that may come back to you.
When posting pictures to social media, pick a select few images to share. Be sure to write how you felt and why that image is important. That way, when you look at them later, it’s easier to recall the experience.
Finally, Dr. Henkel suggests that you take the time to talk about your experiences when you get home, connect with friends and family about their favorite travel memories, and allow them to reminisce.
By lowering your camera and engaging with your environment, you can still have travel experiences worth remembering and, perhaps more importantly, sharing—which helps to keep memories alive and make people feel closer.