The Rise of the Disaster Survivor Selfie


Forget the Mirror Selfie, the Belfie, and the After Sex Selfie. Get used to seeing the selfie taken in the proximity of or after a disaster.

Exhibit A: In January, Ferdinand Puentes posted images of the aftermath when the Cessna he was flying in crashed into the Pacific Ocean off of Molokai, Hawaii. The astounding image — of Puentes afloat with the plane’s tail visible in the sea behind him — went viral.

Exhibit B: In mid-March, a US Airways plane in Philadelphia blew a tire and crashed while attempting to take off. All 154 people on board were fine — true disaster averted — but Twitter user Hannah Udren posted a selfie taken in front of the still-smoking plane, and her shot also went viral.

Exhibit C: Earlier this week, 19 students were stabbed in a terrible and violent incident at a Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, PA. One of the students, Nate Scimio — who was stabbed in the arm but managed to pull the fire alarm, which may have saved lives — posted a selfie from the hospital.

Exhibit D: Yesterday afternoon, all lanes on the 105 Freeway in Los Angeles were shut down because a man was threatening to jump off of a pedestrian overpass. As authorities arrived on the scene to talk him down, motorists stuck at a stand still left their vehicles and began posing in front of the traffic and taking selfies. In this image posted by Marcus Smith of KTLA, you can see a cluster of folks leaning in for a good group shot, as well as a man with his arm up in the air, getting a good angle on a selfie. While these folks were likely just documenting a rare view — a usually busy freeway with all cars stopped — the fact remains that it was because of a potentially tragic situation. As Death and Taxes points out, they were taking pictures right in front of a man’s attempted suicide. Pretty sure you can see the man on the fence behind them.

Exhibit D: Also in California yesterday, later in the day, there was a horrific, deadly crash involving a FedEx truck and a charter bus transporting high school students. Ten people lost their lives. More than thirty were injured. Among the injured is 17-year-old Jonathan Gutierrez, who snapped a selfie from his hospital bed, wounds still fresh.

One the one hand, one could argue that in the midst of a tragedy (or potential tragedy), turning the camera on oneself is blithely narcissistic and inherently myopic; instead of documenting the actual situation, it documents one’s face in front of the actual situation (or the aftermath).

But the truth is, we’re living in a Selfie Nation on a Selfie Planet. “Pics or it didn’t happen” isn’t just a phrase, it’s a lifestyle. The go-to way to communicate. Friends and family are not tortured by wondering and worrying, as phones ring and ring with no answer — there’s an upside to instantaneous messaging with an immediate visual. For a plane/bus crash survivor or a stabbing victim, it’s a quick way to disseminate essential, vital information: I lived. I’m okay. The picture is worth a thousand words. Plus, there’s an intense, compelling human need to share: Here’s where I am. Look at what happened to me. Plus, the Disaster Selfie puts a human face on a tragedy that can seem abstract or distant, especially since we become desensitized to disasters. The words “bus crash” and a photo of twisted metal can’t elicit an emotional reaction the way a photograph of a bandaged teenager can. That said, the macabre suicide shot? What the fuck. Not cool.

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