Behold the ubiquitous, slim telescopes wavering over a thousand frozen smiles like so many anxious antennae: the selfie-sticks of Paris. Beside the fountains, past the monuments, above the queues that snake around the Louvre pyramid — I can’t go anywhere here without stubbing my face on someone else’s selfie-stick.
When they’re not stirring the air above the tourists, they are collapsed, but at the ready. Never in a purse or backpack — the selfie-stick is in hand, unsheathed, firmly clutched like a truncheon or an umbrella. Because you simply never know when you might need it. Fast.
It’s not lost on me, the irony. For all the reasons I’m spending these months in France on my own, chief among them is the hope that I’ll leave with a better sense of myself at this precise time in my life. I hope to reconnect, to see myself more clearly. I’m taking a metaphorical selfie. Maybe that’s why I’m snapping so few pictures, least of all of myself. I figure, the more time I spend on photographic documentation, the less I’m spending on the key and gritty task of introspection: warts and all. No filters, no touch-ups.
That hasn’t stopped me from trying to position myself in as many other peoples’ selfies as possible. It’s so easy! This will be a social option on Facebook and Instagram any day now, I’m sure of it. 113 of your connections share the same haphazardly dressed photobomber.
But who, truly, is actually going to look at all these selfies? Returning from far-flung adventures back in my ’20s, I could scarcely convince my roommates to look at my slides of ancient temples and tribal ceremonies without first cooking them dinner and hiding their shoes so they couldn’t sneak away when I dimmed the lights.
Now we’re bombarding everyone we purport to care about with pictures of ourselves partially obscuring whatever it is that might actually be remarkable in the background. What a rare and wonderful thing it was in days gone by to simply drift apart from old friends because I never got a chance to see them, not because I’m fed up with looking at their best angles, every day, crows feet artfully smoothed out with the Rise filter.
The fact is it’s no longer enough to merely take a picture of the Arc de Triomphe. All of us have already seen it on TV, or on a fridge magnet, or Googled it when we read The Divinci Code. Now we need photos of ourselves in front of the Arc de Triomphe! — ten or twenty photos, ideally, so we can squint at them rather than at the world around us, take a few more, crop and optimize, then share them as soon as we can find free Wi-Fi. I am here, do you see me? I am HERE RIGHT NOW.
I am here right now. Writing a blog post indoors on a sunny day while a pigeon coos on the windowsill, no doubt admiring his reflection in the glass. I should be out taking pictures of myself with a stick in front of other people taking pictures of themselves with sticks in front of something they will forget the name of later. Instead I’m writing about myself, which is no better, really — maybe even worse — than all the navel-gazing selfieishness I’m grumbling about.
And the truth is, I have taken the odd selfie, although I’ve gotten by without the stick. I took one of myself on a bike in the middle of an intersection beneath the Eiffel Tower, cars and buses flooding past me in every direction as if to remind me that the world doesn’t care and has better places to be. An elderly woman stranded with me on our island in the rushing tide of traffic was watching my contortions, smiling. I was struggling to get the tower, the bike, and some of me (just a tad) in the picture. Est-ce que je peux vous aider? she asked, and stretched out a tentative hand towards my smart-phone. I looked at her, dumfounded, as if she was asking me to dance. No, no, I said, then thanked her, feeling both reassured and inexplicably uplifted. Imagine! There are a few people left on earth, rare as a public toilet in Paris, who don’t know that the whole point of a selfie is to take it yourself.