This Opinion Piece Deriding People for Taking Too Many Selfies Has to Be Satire, Right?

Margaret Renkl, writing what I can only assume is a too-obvious impression of what some young people think old people think of them, which is the only reason I can think of for the New York Times to give it any space online:

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange often said. That was surely true of Ms. Lange, whose iconic photographs of Depression-era migrants and urban bread lines captured the beauty as well as the profound anguish of the period.

Today we understand something essential about the grim existence of the poor nearly a hundred years ago in part because Ms. Lange, a successful portrait photographer, turned her lens away from wealth and used it to capture suffering. Even for the people of her time, her work was revelatory, urging downcast eyes to look up and out, to see — and truly register — the struggling.

I am not sure the world needs more poverty porn from any old smartphone user, but is it not just as honest for people to capture their day-to-day life now that many of us have cameras on us all the time? Apparently not, according to Renkl:

That’s not what the most frequently used cameras exist to do anymore. My son and daughter-in-law, who are frequent campers, have seen people queued up at least 50 deep to take phone selfies at popular national park waterfalls and rock formations.

I love this paragraph almost as much as the one which comes just four paragraphs later:

The self-portrait is a time-honored art form, of course, and there are good, even pragmatic reasons to point the lens inward. I love seeing my son and daughter-in-law smiling, cheek to cheek, in their travel photos. But the natural world does not exist for them primarily as a backdrop, and selfies aren’t the only photos they take. I also love seeing the gorgeous, miraculous world through their eyes. I wish social media were full of pictures of the gorgeous, miraculous world.

I am glad Renkl gets to see her son and daughter-in-law smiling on their travels; I am equally sure the families of those who are lining up to take their own selfie are just as thrilled. Does Renkl think everyone apart from her own family members are solely taking pictures of themselves? I guess she must, because she says it is the “most frequently used camera” and it is the subject of the only number referenced in this article:

[…] But in the context of the number of selfies taken every year — billions, according to Google — it’s worth considering what that impulse says about our culture and wondering what opportunities we are losing as a result.

Renkl here references a 2016 Daily Mail article which says the number of selfies uploaded to Google Photos in the first year of its availability was about 24 billion. That number is old, only reflects users of Google Photos, and is based on automated labelling according to Google’s own blog post — why Renkl did not cite the company itself instead of the Mail is a mystery — so it is probably an undercount. To Renkl’s credit, it does appear to be the latest number available. I found many newer articles claiming that 93 million selfies are taken daily, but that is a 2014 figure from Google estimating how many selfies are shared daily by Android users. Still, 93 million per day is around 34 billion annually, so I am happy to use that larger figure. I assume it has grown but I am unable to find a more recent source or bigger number. If it is close to true, it represents less than two percent of the number of pictures taken every year, if this composite estimate of 1.72 trillion photos annually is reasonably accurate.


I keep thinking of what it might be like if we all took the time to photograph such commonplace miracles. What it would be like if all the people with cameras in their pockets transformed themselves into documentary photographers — like Dorothea Lange, like Baldwin Lee — to make a collective record of a truth about the world that most people haven’t yet troubled themselves to see?

Has Renkl spent any time on Instagram, or Twitter, or Glass, or any other photo-dominated platform? Has she spent any time talking to anyone about what photos they take? Literally any time whatsoever.

As I said, this has to be satire. Either that, or Renkl actually believes everything she wrote above about how people take too many selfies — except her children — and the 98 percent of photos taken annually which are not selfies are not shared with the world and have no documentary use. And, somehow, she convinced someone at the Times to publish this, which would mean we would want to question the editorial discretion of the world’s most Pulitzer-awarded newspaper.