Focusing on the wrong things, or: The fatal flaw of selfies

I wrote this piece in 2018. No idea why I never pressed “publish”. Well, dear world, here you are! I made a couple of additions, marked in the text by square brackets.

A particularly fashionable form of contemporary (amateur) photography, for some time now, has been the so-called selfie – a self-portrait [or, in fact, “a self-portrait that didn’t quite make the first cut”, as a friend of mine recently described it], typically captured on one’s mobile phone, taken at arm’s length (or at arms-and-selfie-stick’s length), at what is deemed a flattering angle, and usually with one’s face distorted into some grimace or other.

Selfie-taking in action (Photo: PK, 2018).

I love photography – I’ve written about it on here before. I have my own analogue photography instagram feed, and I run another webpage specifically dedicated to my hobby.

[As far as selfies are concerned, however, I am largely done with that genre (it does not really work like that with analogue cameras anyway), but (i) self-portraits have been part of photography from its inception, and (ii) to each their own, I guess: so … who am I to judge, even though I must admit that my own sentiment, when it comes to their aesthetics, is best captured by the following meme:]

There are not very many opportunities to combine my hobby, analogue photography, with my professional interest in the ancient world.

But every now and then, I encounter a passage that makes me reflect on it.

One such gem is a fable from a little-known collection of Aesopian fables composed by one Baebrius, a hellenised Roman or romanised Greek (to be honest, we know virtually nothing about the man):

Ἔλαφος <ποδώκης> εὔκερως ἀχαιΐνης
λίμνης ὕδωρ ἔπινεν ἡσυχαζούσης.
ἐκεῖ δ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ τὴν σκιὴν θεωρήσας
χηλῆς μὲν ἕνεκα καὶ ποδῶν ἐλυπήθη,
ἐπὶ τοῖς δὲ κέρασιν ὡς καλοῖς ἄγαν ηὔχει·
παρῆν δὲ νέμεσις ἣ τὰ γῆς ἐποπτεύει.
κυνηγέτας γὰρ ἄνδρας εἶδεν ἐξαίφνης
ὁμοῦ σαγήναις καὶ σκύλαξιν εὐρίνοις,
ἰδὼν δ᾿ ἔφευγε, δίψαν οὐδέπω παύσας
καὶ μακρὸν ἐπέρα πεδίον ἴχνεσιν κούφοις.
ἐπεὶ δὲ δὴ σύνδενδρον ἦλθεν εἰς ὕλην,
κέρατα θάμνοις ἐμπλακεὶς ἐθηρεύθη.
τί ταῦτ᾿;” ἔφη· “δύστηνος ὡς διεψεύσθην·
οἱ γὰρ πόδες μ᾿ ἔσῳζον, οἷς ἐπῃδούμην,
τὰ κέρατα δὲ προὔδωκεν, οἷς ἐγαυρούμην.”

Περὶ τῶν σεαυτοῦ πραγμάτων ὅταν κρίνῃς,
μηδὲν βέβαιον ὑπολάβῃς προγινώσκων,
μηδ᾿ αὖτ᾿ ἀπογνῷς, μηδ᾿ ἀπελπίσῃς· οὕτω
σφάλλουσιν ἡμᾶς ἐσθ᾿ ὅθ᾿ αἱ πεποιθήσεις.

In the translation of B. E. Perry –

A two-year stag, swift-footed and with handsome horns, was drinking from a quiet pool. Seeing therein his own image, he was grieved and ashamed at the sight of his hoofs and legs, but in his horns, so beautiful, he felt excessive pride. Behold, that retribution which keeps watch upon the things of earth was close at hand. Some hunters suddenly he spied, equipped with nets and keen-scented hounds; whereat he turned to flee, not yet having slaked his thirst. With nimble feet he dashed across a wide expanse of plain, but when he came into the woods with trees on every side his horns got tangled in the boughs and he was caught. “What’s this?” he cried. “Alas, how miserably was I deceived! My feet were bringing me to safety, and of them I was ashamed; the horns, of which I was so proud, betrayed me.”

In taking stock of your affairs do not suppose that anything can be relied upon as sure before the event. On the other hand do not give up or lose hope. So deceptive sometimes are our confident expectations.

Those who take a pessimistic approach to taking selfies tend to point out that this may be a form of narcissism, self-obsession, and general superficiality.

At the other end of the spectrum, it has been argued that the selfie is an important tool of freedom of (self-)expression.

The beauty of Baebrius’ fable, to my mind, lies in the way in which it captures some really important aspects about photography.

Pictures are what we, what the photographers and onlookers see in them.

They do not document truth, true value, true virtue, true strength.

They tell a story – a story of what someone wanted to focus on. A story of what someone wanted to see – and wanted others to see.

They deliberately distort perspective, make their interprets focus on specific aspects while drawing attention away from others.

But, as Baebrius’ stag was to discover: in real life, distortions won’t save us: we must be aware of our true, genuine, real assets and value(s). Otherwise, those who pray on us and our vanities will hunt and shoot us down, exclusively for their own benefit or pleasure.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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