Backpacking India: Me, My Selfie and I
India is the selfie capital of the world. And it’s easy to see why. From Amritsar’s ornate golden temple to the hand-painted elephants of Jaipur, India’s landmarks and wildlife make the perfect backdrop for envy-inducing photographs. Sometimes I run out of superlatives to describe how photogenic and atmospheric this country is but I never run out of opportunities to document it through selfies – whatsappng my friends back home from colorful, over-crowded train carriages or tweeting when I’m photo-bombed by mischievous monkeys.
A morbid fact, but there are in fact now more selfie-related deaths in India than anywhere else in the world. This doesn’t surprise me. I was at Top Station in Munnar and saw a man (pictured below) teetering precariously close to the vertical cliff edge, completely unaware of the proximity of danger because he was so busy beaming into his iphone. I warned him to watch his step and he promptly decided that trying to get a selfie with me, a blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigner, was more interesting than the jaw-dropping landscape he had hiked up to. This is another thing that has baffled and amused me during my time in India – people’s obsession with taking selfies with foreign tourists like me.
I went alone to visit the the archeological wonders of monkey island in Mumbai but had to leave after an hour because I could barely walk ten paces without being accosted for another photo with a stranger. At the beginning on my travels around India I would feel a flush of flattery when asked for a photo, like a celebrity posing with my fans. Even in rural areas, kids might not speak a word of English but would demand ‘selfie!’ before quickly thrusting a cell phone in my direction. My friend Gabrielle had the same experience recently when visiting Jaipur with Save the Children – the allure of a ‘selfie’ transcends all culture and language barriers.
After a few weeks, the novelty of ‘papped’ wore off and developed into an annoyance. Whilst I never minded having a baby thrust into my arms or posing with a bride at her wedding, I did object to being unwillingly snapped by a lone man on a train or when a group of boys tried to take a selfie with me in my bikini on a Keralan beach. There is often an expectation that foreigners will oblige in such scenarios but privacy should be respected in any culture – I wince when I see tourists try to photograph a ceremony on the burning ghats or woman bathing in the gangas.
It gets tiring to oblige for photos but I do understand this fixation of taking selfies with strangers. I’ve done it myself countless times. In Rajasthan I would regularly ask for photos of women adorned in beautiful jewelry and in Varanasi I became borderline obsessive about taking snaps of sadhus. As humans, we are innately inquisitive about others and there is no better souvenir than a selfie with someone who looks and dresses completely different to you. As long as they are happy and consent to being photographed.
Whilst I am partial to a selfie, I’m often baffled by people’s obsession to capture the perfect photo at the expense of the experience itself. Selfies are fun but can spoil your enjoyment of the moment. Can the pursuit of the perfect shot distract you completely from the very purpose of your visit? I don’t just want a phone full of photos of that crazy market in Mumbai, I want to remember the intoxicating smell of spices and sweat, to take time to engage with the people flogging pineapples instead of just snapping them and walking off and I want to use my senses, not just an app on my phone, to soak up the atmosphere and chaos of the unique places I visit.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to document my travels and my blog is brimming with photographs of India’s dazzling sights, but I try to remember that whilst getting the perfect snap feels important at the time, they quickly disappear from snapchat or are bumped down newsfeeds. Memories are much more sharable – you don’t need a tablet or cellphone to capture the moment you saw a tiger for the first time and the number of ‘likes’ a selfie gets shouldn’t validate our experience or be the focus of our visit.
Selfies soon lie dormant in our ‘mobile uploads’ album but being able to verbalise those moments and reminisce for years to come has much more longevity. No selfie can encapsulate the feeling when you sipped your first chai on the chaotic streets of Mumbai or the memories evoked when you think back to that lingering sunset over Hampi’s boulderous landscape. Whilst the modern phenomenon of selfie-taking plonks us in the midst of the action and cements us to that place or moment, sharing those experiences in person when you get back home outweighs a thousand pics.
This column was originally written for Discover India Magazine