We live in an age where documentation of our most painful, precious, and pernicious “life events” (Facebook pun very much intended) is a tap away. The selfie has found an interesting place in cultural context in terms of memorialization. But how is it changing the way we express grief, respect, and demonstrations of remembrance publicly?
I recently visited Westminster bridge to document Londoners (and tourists) paying their respects to the recently-fallen victims of the terror attack at Westminster which claimed the lives of three victims. While London has made quite the comeback, which I covered in a recent photoessay featured by Edge of Humanity Magazine, it has also made a vested effort in displaying its support for the fallen and for the community’s togetherness in the wake of terror.
Flowers adorn the bridge at every lamppost, notes of encouragement and solidarity, love and oneness abound. On Parliament Square, bouquets of flowers lie in pristine rows, still wrapped in cellophane, stretching the length of the green.
As I watched the young ladies on the left snap shots of the flowers, of each other, and seemingly quip back and forth about the “where-to” next, their backs turned to the flowers with the occasional exception made for a picture of the daffodils, the comparably-late middle aged woman on the right approached.
Quietly, no digital device in hand, she placed her hand on the bridge in silence, remaining there for minutes on end, undeterred. It was unclear on whether or not they were a party at first, but as the young ladies made their way off into the distance after their photo-lust had been sated, I watched the older woman walk to nearly each and every lamppost on the bridge, pausing before each and every one.
There she stood for minutes on end, watching nothing but the flowers, absorbed in thoughts and, presumably, in silence for the remembrance of the fallen. Her sombre expression to me implied that she felt deeply for these people, and that in her pausing, she had expressed more condolence for these people than had a thousand selfie-takers combined.
Everywhere, people stop to take pictures — because it’s London, and that’s what people do here and everywhere else. Photos of the buildings, photos of each other in front of the buildings, photos of the memorials (some by professional-grade photographers and others, novices). But many of those stopping for the “selfie” in front of the pop-up memorial locations represented an indiscriminately younger demographic, leaving out no minority from its midst, with middle-aged and elderly patrons pausing alongside the rows of flowers lying like bodies, or lamppost pediments adorned with flora to hang their heads and comment on the notes and sentiments left with more depth.
This raises some interesting questions, questions which, I acknowledge, are not “new” in terms of artists’ representations of this issue, with a recent “Yolocaust” project, which photoshops devastating photographs of the holocaust into the background of selfies taken at Holocaust memorial sites garnering important media attention.
It is an acknowledged fact that taking a “selfie” at a place meant to permanently memorialise an act of terror or atrocity can be considered gauche. But what does the tendency of some members of the younger generations to do so say about our increasingly-digitised culture?
But as a temporary memorial, and at that, a memorial which holds the purpose of unifying people and bringing a shaken community together, does this site hold a different social protocol?In this case, is the fact that these impermanent places of memorialization intend to represent normalcy, in a way — an exception to the unspoken rules of digital society? Does the selfie, in this case, inspire unity and respect the fallen, providing an opportunity for solidarity and strength?
Or potentially, has a faction of digital culture approached a need for self-glorification so desperate that the need to prove their patronage to sites meant for remembrance bears with it a social standard for the “selfie”‘s inclusion? Its intent, arguably to prove the selflessness of the attendee as users of social media sites enshrine themselves and glorify their lives at an increasing rate, arguably accomplishes just the opposite by shouting into the digital void for validation of altruism in a social forum.
I feel I am yet undeserving of the titles which culturally most accurately describe my professional inclinations: “researcher”, “writer”, “photographer”, “journalist”, “artist” — I do not believe I will ever feel comfortable with these titles, and so by those standards, am a part of the crowd. But as someone who fits, at least, the intent behind each of those titles, I acknowledge it would be hypocritical of me to address the actions of others when I, too, am behind a lens (and have taken photos of myself paying respects to my family’s graves since it is somewhat of a tradition). I believe firmly, that whenever photographing or otherwise documenting a cultural happening of any variety, it is ethically important to take a photograph for face value as much as it is important to take it for the thousand words it imbues; that is to say, that we can know little context beyond what is absorbed by the photographer and writer, and all of what we can know by making our own assumptions and seeking the answers to our own questions.
Beyond this, I feel it is most critical that, like time spent in nature, only footprints are left at a scene of still-healing pain, and that in taking an image, and so capturing it forever, sometimes unaware of the audience it will be exposed to, photographers, writers, and artists take time to pay their respects in a non-digital way. A journalist’s job is to reveal the truth. A photographer’s job is to capture a piece of time. An artist trades in feeling, and a writer, often, in pain and pleasure. Our job as human beings of this age is to approach all things asking questions, internally processing always, wondering how we can improve ourselves as members of society.