A world without selfies?

Omair Ahmad | Updated on April 17, 2020 Published on April 17, 2020

Human history and cultural imports — our obsession with self-portraits, for example — go hand in hand

As with most of us working from home, I, too, have taken part in video conferences (VC). I usually avoid the video part, keeping only the audio on, but I just had to join a couple of VCs . That’s when I discovered that my laptop camera was not working. I ran a few checks on the software. After an hour of fiddling, it became clear that there was nothing I could do to fix the problem. The camera, bought a few months ago, just did not work.

I should have been disappointed. I had spent quite a bit on the purchase, and having to pay to have a new thing fixed — impossible under the circumstances — is always unpleasant. I guess I should have checked it when I bought it, but I hadn’t. I simply did not care for the camera, and I was more relieved than aggrieved to find that it did not work.

It is only when such things happen that you realise that you are often forced to pay for things you do not want. They come bundled with other objects — the camera, for example, which came with the laptop. Such instances also make you wonder why certain things are considered “essential” even if people may not want them, like them or use them.

Cameras, in particular, are a striking example of something that is integrated in everything from phones to laptops. We live in a culture filled with images — much of it driven by advertising, which seeps into every corner of our lives. The camera is so ubiquitous that we consider it natural, and never pause to think that it may be a product of another culture specific to a certain geography. Like the suit and tie, now a universal product, which had its origins in a particular European heritage.

A long time ago, my sister had introduced me to the idea that technology is rooted in specific cultures. She came across the concept in a book by a French writer who had questioned why the image of a person — hence, fashion — dominated so much of our lives. The focus on fashion has driven many other developments — the discovery of various fabrics, dri-fit clothing, magazines and talk shows, not to forget Fashion TV.

This thought struck me forcefully in a museum, of all places. Many years ago, broke and without many places to go to, I spent a lot of time at the National Gallery in London. Entry was free, and there were countless paintings on display. Even if I knew nothing about art, I enjoyed the soothing tones of a Monet, and Manet’s stunning The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. What amused me the most was the number of portraits in the museum’s collection. The subjects of these paintings would have been petty nobles who were probably patrons of the artists, but I found it odd that they should stand for hours, families in tow, for a painting.

Just behind the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery, which is dedicated to, well, portraits. I rarely went there. It seemed dreary to keep looking at the self-important poses of people whose vanity had outlived their name and fame. I initially ascribed it to my strict Sunni Muslim upbringing, in which pictures of people were derided, but I later came to suspect that it was not my reaction that was odd, but the proliferation of images in Europe that I found unusual.

Representations of people have been around from the days of the Greeks and Romans. Other cultures had them too — Egypt’s striking art, the terracotta army of China, the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro, or even the complex workmanship of Khajuraho. But in Europe, even before it was known as such, there seems to be a difference. The examples I have just cited are stylised artworks that don’t represent specific people, more ideas. Even Mughal miniatures created around the same time are rarely obsessed about the characteristics of one person. The focus on personal features seems to come from a specific geography, tied neither to religion nor dynasty. Today, though, the image is everywhere, the camera is everywhere, the selfie knows no borders. This historical gulf has disappeared.

I do not mean to suggest we abandon cameras as an alien European import; that would be like rejecting the potato because it came from South America. But it is a useful reminder that human history is all about choice. We did not have to be this way; we chose, probably unconsciously, to be how we are, and we can choose to be different. Another world is possible, one without selfies.


The author is the South Asia Editor for the Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on April 17, 2020
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