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When Selfies Turn Deadly, the World Can’t Look Away

This summer has seen several tourists' last moments caught on camera, but death by selfie is not a new phenomenon.

by Steven Blum
Jul 13 2016, 4:00pm

Photo by Alejandro Moreno de Carlos via Stocksy

This past Friday, 35-year-old Colleen Burns accidentally fell to her death from a cliff along the Grand Canyon. Burns had posted a photo of herself sitting on the edge of the natural marvel, back to the camera, with the caption, "That view tho." Hours later, she was found 400 feet below from where she'd captured her moment of zen.

Although her death was not a result of the photo—according to reports, she fell while hiking later that day—it taps into the potent media demand for the last photos. It comes about a week after a German tourist died while trying to take a photo atop a restricted area of Machu Picchu. According to the Washington Post, Olivier Park slipped and fell approximately 130 feet while jumping into the air to pose for a photo. A day earlier, a South Korean tourist fell more than 1,600 feet off northern Peru's Gocta waterfall while taking a selfie.

Read more: Are Elaborate Makeup Selfies a Legitimate Way to Grieve?

There are so many distracting things people do that can lead to death: texting; playing Pokemon Go; eating complicated foods like hummus and pretzels, sneezing, or arguing about directions while driving. Selfie deaths, however, play on a unique combination of fears; namely that vanity and technology are conspiring to lead our nation straight to hell.

Even our doctors are scared. According the Journal of Travel Medicine, the danger of selfie-snapping on craggy mountaintops or other precarious places should outweigh bragging rights, somehow. "The lack of situational awareness and temporary distraction inherent in selfie-taking exposes the traveller to potential hazards," the report reads.

In truth, history's total number of selfie deaths is extremely low, especially considering the fact that the genre makes up an estimated 30 percent of all photographs taken by 18- to 24-year-olds. A study by Priceonomics found that selfies were involved in the deaths of 49 people since 2014; just to get a sense of how tiny that number is, about 2.1 billion people own smartphones, and they take somewhere around eleventy billion photos per year.

It memorializes the person but in this really macabre way, and that's why it gets so much attention.

No matter how unlikely an occurrence, though, whenever a selfie death happens, the photo that precipitated or immediately predated the tragedy almost always ends up in the news.

"I think there's a fascination with the photo that captures the moment of or right before death," Jenna Brager, a doctoral student at Rutgers who studies selfies, told me. "It memorializes the person but in this really macabre way, and that's why it gets so much attention."

A selfie death photo also captures the media's heart because it's easily translatable into a parable about the dangers of narcissism and status obsession on social media.

"There's definitely a shaming culture that feels new even though it's not, because we like to see all technology as ruptural," Brager said.

Google searches for "selfie deaths" spiked in 2014 when a Lebanese teenager named Mohammad Chaar snapped a photo of himself and a few friends in downtown Beirut shortly before a car bomb went off. Chaar was killed in the blast and was later branded a "martyr." Seeking justice for his death, younger Lebanese began the online campaign #notamartyr.

Brager believes their campaign attracted international attention because selfie takers are "legible" and "grievable" for Western social media spectators.

"Western viewers became really obsessed with the 'just like us!' aspect of that selfie," she said.

Since Chaar's death, a number of other selfie deaths have made international headlines, though more for the purposes of finger-wagging than political activism.

Last year, 17-year-old daredevil Instagram user dresssik fell nine floors to his death while posing on a rooftop; he only wanted to make it look like he fell. More recently, a Washington State resident accidentally shot himself in the face with a gun while taking a selfie. (According to reports, he'd neglected to remove all the bullets.)

In the wake of these deaths, countries have created campaigns to warn selfie takers of areas of which they should steer clear. In India, Mumbai officials established 16 "no selfie zones" throughout the city, while Russia, which ranks second in selfie fatalities according to Priceonomics, has begun a marketing campaign urging selfie-takers to get off transmission towers and away from oncoming traffic.

Read more: Why Women Are Using Selfie Sticks to Look Inside Their Vaginas

In New York, a more humble campaign has been underway since 2014 to keep selfie takers away from tigers, apparently the ideal babe magnet on Tinder. According to a Wall Street Journal article from two years ago, "thousands of daters have turned to big cats to help them catch the eye of potential mates," though after the law made "hugging, patting, or otherwise touching" tigers at state fairs and circuses punishable by up to $500 in fines, they'll now have to pose with regular house cats instead.

More recently, a Dubai digital ad agency created a site called Selfie to Die For, part of an "educative movement" aimed to "create awareness" on the "life hazards" of taking selfies. Unfortunately, in the process the website valorizes those it means to stigmatize, with some truly awe-inspiring photos of selfie-taking daredevils. "These were taken by straight-up crazy people or high-caliber professionals of their field," reads the text above the photos. But the fact that the site uses them to get its message across ends up kind of proving the point that dangerous-seeming photographs are cool and we should all do them.

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Unlike campaigns against texting while driving—a very real temptation for most people!—waging a war against dangerous selfies is waging a war against endorphins: A small minority of people will continue to do dumb shit for a majority of attention long after the iPhone goes the way of the Palm Pre. To find out what's really going on would require more sophisticated analysis. Or, as Brager puts it, "You really need to dig into why we look at the things we look at."

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