Tuesday, 17 December 2013

That selfie

I know the constant hunt for “photo opportunities” has been part of prime ministerial life ever since Winston Churchill perfected his V-sign. But still, it was quite a few days for David Cameron.
First the chance to pose with EDP editor Nigel Pickover at one of Norfolk’s flood sites. Then, with the Wells salt barely dry on his shoes, he’s getting snapped in Johannesburg with Barack Obama.
This time even the photographer was a head of state, Denmark’s prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Like many people, my first thought on seeing the images of her snapping a “selfie”, with a grinning Cameron and Obama leaning in, was that they were showing a dismal lack of respect to Nelson Mandela.
The occasion that brought them together was, after all, supposed to be a memorial service to the great man. A man in whose historical shadow they will appear as pipsqueaks, barely footnotes in his chapter.
But then it occurred to me they were doing no more than embodying the spirit of the age. Demonstrating how acute the editors of the Oxford Dictionary were in naming “selfie” as the word of the year.
And, in its way, the action of Thorning-Schmidt in seeking to capture her moment with Obama on her smartphone was actually quite endearing. The naively self-obsessed action of a typical 21st-century teenager.
Though at 46, Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law and the mother of his granddaughters, she should perhaps have known better.
It seems more than slightly curious, though, that the photo of a photo being taken should have made global news. After all, we should by now be thoroughly used to everyone but everyone wielding cameras, or photo-enabled phones.
A decade or so ago, when I was still lugging a film camera around everywhere, I remarked to my brother that there had probably been more digital photos taken than all those ever shot on film. His response was the sort of look you’d give someone who hit on the idea that leaves might grow on trees.
Now there are undoubtedly more photos shot every day than have been committed to film in all the 190 years or so of that technology.
It’s becoming wearying. Overwhelming.
Think back a few centuries, to the heyday of East Anglia’s wonderful medieval churches. The paintings that adorned their walls and screens, the stained glass in their windows (if they could afford it), the statues in their niches and carvings on their bench-ends were the only images of any kind that most people saw.
Many – perhaps most – Norfolk villagers would go through their entire lives seeing fewer pictures of people than a modern schoolkid will snap on their phone in an ordinary day.
 No wonder today’s youngsters seem so obsessed with how they look. We live in an image-obsessed age. In that way, as in many others, an age unique in human history so far.
You can’t walk through London, as I regularly do, or even travel on the Tube, without becoming part of the background of countless holiday snaps.
Right now my profile is probably being looked at (or pointedly ignored) somewhere in China, or India, or Russia, or heaven knows where, an unwitting Cameron to some tourist’s Thorning-Schmidt.
You just have to ignore it. Hope there’s no truth in the old belief (or alleged belief) that the camera could steal souls.
If it does, it’s no wonder if we’ve become a soulless society.


Owning a camera – even an 18-megapixel digital SLR with multiple zoom lenses – doesn’t make a person a photographer. Any more than having Microsoft Word on your laptop makes you a writer.
But the world is so full of cameras, and camera magazines, that the market must be saturated with people who think they’re photographers.
Back in 1917, my grandmother was commissioned to act as interpreter to an American journalist, Albert Rhys Williams, who was writing a book about the Russian revolution. When his book appeared, it included two photos she had taken along the way.
Carrying a camera around, as she did, wasn’t so common in those days. She and my grandfather started something of a family tradition.
For some reason, the images I take seem to appeal to the publishers of geography textbooks. Between those, shots of historical detail in churches and a small handful of East Anglian landscape prints, I’ve sold enough over the years to just about cover the cost of the equipment I took them with.
It doesn’t exactly add up to an alternative career. But that’s the thing about photography today. Everyone with a camera thinks they can do it.
And that – when you consider that an ordinary phone is now also a fairly capable camera – is just about everyone.
Thank goodness I’ve got my laptop to fall back on.


Uruguay may not seem the most obvious country to be a world leader in political decision-making, but I wonder if it’s ahead of the game in legalising cannabis.
I also wonder whether this unusually wise decision makes England’s progress in next year’s World Cup more or less unlikely.

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