Selfie sticks at the Louvre

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Grace and my father at the Louvre.  All the selfie-takers were focused on the more famous art, and this room was deserted.

“The stick is the sword in the selfie army,” my 10 year old son observed as we walked underneath the Eiffel Tower, last month in Paris. I looked at him, laughed, and dodged another group of tourists gathering together to take a photo of themselves with the soaring steel gridwork of Paris’s most famous landmark in the background.

We were in Paris for a week. We saw the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s tomb, more pieces of art and history than I can remember. We also saw dozens and dozens and dozens of people taking selfies. At the Louvre we couldn’t see the more famous works of art. We couldn’t see through the thick throng of phones, held overhead.

The people had their backs to the art. They were looking at them through the camera lens, and with their own smiling face in the foreground. Maybe I’m old. Well, actually, yes, I’m definitely old. But still, I found it shocking.

I was shocked because people weren’t looking at Paris. They were looking in the lenses of their phones. This once-in-a-lifetime experience was mediated through the lens of a phone camera. I’ve observed this before, particularly at school concerts and plays. I have been guilty of this, myself, of missing whole swaths of an experience or a performance because I was so focused on getting a good photo of it. All around me, in the lower school gym, there are glowing screens and parents videotaping a concert. Their witnessing of the experience is secondary to their recording of it. In the last few years, though, I’ve tried harder to put my phone down and to simply be here now – be here now, what my someday-maybe-dream tattoo will say, on my wrist – and trust that the memories I make are richer and more colorful than any photo would have been.

What I saw in Paris was different than what I’ve seen in the lower school gym, though. Yes, the parents and the tourists were both mediating their experience through a camera lens. But the tourists were experiencing Paris backwards, in order to make sure they themselves were in the photos.   They weren’t looking at the city; they had their back to it.

The truth is, this question felt uncomfortably close, because I’m often anxious about the solipsism inherent in writing personal essay. Is it the same thing as what I observed in the Louvre, people inserting themselves into every photo? It strikes me that it’s not. I write what I see, and my gaze is turned out, onto the world. The essays I write – and, perhaps more importantly, the ones I am drawn to reading– are insistently outwardly focused. They are about subjectivity only in so far as that is the filter through which the world is viewed.  This makes me think of the Aikra Kurosawa quote: “An artist is one who does not avert her gaze.”  When I read that passage, I think of writers and artists whose work I admire: their gaze is outward. 

What I witnessed in Paris, which made me sad, is the insistent viewing of oneself in every frame. The lens is literally turned. The photo, or the essay – and the experience – is self-reflexive. It’s about the subject primarily, rather than secondarily.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the young adults whose back was to Paris. Yes, it made me sad to see this, but what’s really going on? IS that generation insecure about their place in the world? What underlies their aggressive need to assert that they are there? Or has the culture become so self-centered that all that matters is our own experience of something, of documenting that we were there?

I’m not sure. But I do know that there’s something sad about turning your back to Paris, even if you get a great shot of your face with the blurry Mona Lisa in the background.

I wrote this piece after our March trip to Paris


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11 Comments

  1. Ari
    Posted June 24, 2015 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    I agree. I feel it is about self-centeredness. I have the same question when I see people posting their “happy” pictures on Facebook daily. I have no doubt most of those selfie stick pictures were taken for Facebook, Twitter, … and other social media websites. We need to enjoy the life we are in, not just the pictures we are in.

  2. Posted June 24, 2015 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I’ve often wondered about this myself, this intense need to document that “I was here” and then to share it widely on social media. It seems driven by wanting comments, likes and shares, as though these things further validate an experience. As though something didn’t really happen unless it’s been seen by the world and given the thumbs up.

  3. Posted June 24, 2015 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I love this, Lindsey. And I think that the writing you do is the opposite of selfies. As you say, your writing is turned outward, observing. It is also a creative venture that demands reflection. It is not a quick shot backwards, but a process that needs time. Lastly, your writing forges community. It brings people and ideas together. That is not a selfie!
    P.S. I am thinking of a maybe wrist tattoo as well — love the “be here now.”

  4. Posted June 24, 2015 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Yeeeeees!!! Such an astute observation . . . the turning of the back to the art, the the sites, to all of Paris . . . the inserting of oneself into the corner of each frame both literary and figuratively.

    Also– ““An artist is one who does not avert her gaze.” Wow. That is so spot on. And I think it’s true that the writing I love most, even the humorous writing for example, gleans its power from its ability for others to be able to nod along the way and see truths about the world. I appreciate good observations and wisdom more than a cutting open of a wound on the page so to say.

    Anyway, this was such an excellent piece of observational writing by the way. I’ve been disturbed the concerts, etc. too for a while. A few years ago I wrote a post for Kveller about that sort of thing. I can’t remember my original title but they changed it to “Stop Taking So Many Pictures of Your Kids” which was really not my exact point. They still run it on FB and the title riles people up. Sigh.

  5. Posted June 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh, the image of all those people turning their back on that great city! It makes me feel old as well. When I visited Paris, there was no such thing as a selfie! My pictures are mainly of the city itself, save for the few where my friends and I asked a stranger (gasp! Interacting with another human!) to take a picture of us.

    Your son’s comment is so clever! The stick is the sword in the selfie army! Ha!

  6. Posted June 24, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    You’re the second friend this week who’s made this observation about Paris. The other said he will never return; the experience of being there felt ruined for him. Your post saddens me, but it also makes me doubly grateful for YOUR outward gaze, the glimpses of life you offer not by snapping mindless photos but by feeling deeply, shaping sentences to express those feelings, and then sharing them.

  7. Posted June 26, 2015 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I love this thoughtful essay. I agree with your observation and it sadness me. Last week I found myself guilty of the same, I watched a gorgeous formation of geese gliding over the lake and I attempted to capture it with my iPhone, I was so disappointed in myself when I realized I had missed their landing. It’s not the same as taking selfies but it also kills us from experiencing the moment fully when we are busy trying to capture the moment instead of living the moment. Xo

  8. Posted June 26, 2015 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Your post was so timely, Lindsey. My youngest (15) and I just returned from Paris on Wednesday. We were visiting my oldest (21) who is studying there for the first half of the summer. I was overwhelmed by the number of selfie sticks and the constant barrage of selfies in general. But if I’m honest, my 15 year old had plenty of her own moments trying to get just the perfect selfie for her “Snap Chat story”. We ignored her. But I’m grateful that she has spent her life traveling, and also knew when it was time to just soak in the experiences.
    Before our trip, I had complained to my oldest because she had barely posted any pictures of her first month in Paris. She explained that she just wanted “to be” in Paris, and she didn’t need everyone else to feel like they were there with her. After being there this week, and reading your post, I think she’s on the right track.
    P.S. We recently bought a house in a coastal town in Southern Maine, and it, too, was overrun with selfie sticks on Memorial Day weekend. So disappointing.

  9. Gale
    Posted June 26, 2015 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, thank you so much for this thoughtful post. It resonates with me deeply because we went to Paris last year for our 10th anniversary and I fell deeply in love with the city and it breaks my heart to read your words about so many people missing the city in favor of seeing themselves. But it touches me also because much as you describe, I myself fight the urge to capture everything for posterity at the cost of missing it in the moment.

    This reminds me a bit of something I read about students and laptops. Apparently students in college classes who take notes on laptops retain less of the content. Because they can type so quickly they basically take dictation, without really processing the lecture. Conversely, students who take notes by hand can’t possible capture every word the professor says, and so they must digest and prioritize the content in order to select which points to write down. The result is that they actually remember and understand the lessons better than their typing counterparts.

    I wonder if our memories work the same way; if by focusing on the act of taking a photo rather than absorbing the place/event in front of us, we actually rob ourselves of the memory. And, as I’m sure you’re acutely aware, memories can be recalled at any time. But photos can only be recalled when we dig them up.

    Much food for thought this morning. Thanks again.

  10. Posted June 26, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Amen. It does seem to me these days that so many are more focused on I.was.there rather than be.here.now, and it seems impossible to me to be present in the moment and capture it at once. I love to take pictures and I’m always writing because I have to…it’s how I process and make meaning of my experiences, but it’s also tricky because I can get caught up in curating my life instead of living it. Then I end up with evidence that means nothing. Sometimes it’s a challenge to let life happen, to let the event unfold and just enjoy the moment at hand and know that is enough. Whit is so wise beyond his years!

  11. Posted July 8, 2015 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    This makes me so sad. It seems people are missing the point about what is important and a selfie isn’t it. Once in a great while, I take a picture of myself with my kids but it’s only to prove I’m actually alive!

    I’ve been feeling this way as well–thank you for articulating it so well in this post. You aren’t alone!