How Taking Selfies Changed the Way I Travel

How Taking Selfies Changed the Way I Travel

This past summer, I packed a duffel bag with a week’s worth of clothes and hopped on a plane to Australia. For the first time, I was traveling alone with absolutely no plan: no one to stay with, no definite places I was going to visit, and, most formatively, no travel companion. Every trip I had taken before that fateful July was with a friend, my family, or my study abroad group, so I consciously made the decision to set out on my own to a place known for intrepid backpacker culture and acres of pastoral land for wistful gazing and contemplation.

Hugging my parents and my sister at the airport felt immensely liberating, and I slipped into my window seat confident that I had begun my own Eat, Pray, Love journey across the Pacific. But about fifteen minutes after takeoff, my mind wandered towards the inevitable questions of first-time solo travelers. Who would eat lunch with me? Who would walk with me out at night? Who was going to take my picture at all the incredible sights? I suddenly realized how lonely I would be for the next two months, and I panicked.

Who would eat lunch with me? Who would walk with me out at night? Who was going to take my picture at all the incredible sights?

I could hardly afford to change my flight home to an earlier date, so my journey was fixed – two full months, July and August, flying in and out of Melbourne-Tullamarine airport. My first week in Melbourne felt cripplingly lonesome. I tried to befriend the other travelers in my hostel, but everyone passed through so quickly and seemed to already have formed into clique before I arrived. Every morning, I looked forlornly over at tables of Chinese twenty-somethings swapping jokes and hippie German backpackers solemnly discussing their soul-searching journeys through the Himalayas as I watched Family Guy on the lounge TV and ate cornflakes before walking downtown to yet another of Melbourne’s many museums. Inevitably, my days all started looking like this:

How Taking Selfies Changed the Way I Travel
Determined to not let a single sight go unseen

“Excuse me, could you take a picture of me in front of this giant stuffed horse? I heard it’s really important to Australian culture and stuff…I guess you didn’t hear me. Oh, I see, you’re with your kids. That’s fine! I suppose I’ll take a picture of it myself…you’re a handsome horse, aren’t you Phar Lap? Smile for the camera! What a star! Good God, I’m talking to a taxidermy horse.”

I told myself before I left that I would not let a single Australian sight go unseen. I had saved money for this trip since I was fourteen and saw a re-run of National Geographic’s 1988 special on Australian Aborigines in my high school anthropology class. But once I finally arrived, I held off on the best things Australia had to offer because I was worried how I would look going by myself. I kept envisioning the moment of asking people to take my picture.

The solicited person generally agrees awkwardly as she steps away from her group, asks how to use the camera (“Just press here, the top button, yep, that one!”), intones “One…Two…Three…Cheese!” and takes a picture where my eyes are completely shut and I’m too embarrassed to ask for another. So instead of planning trips around the country, I passed many afternoons walking aimlessly around Melbourne or at the yoga studio next door to the hostel, spending my numbered days in Australia the same way I would in New York.

I knew I could not leave Australia without any evidence that I had been there, without any mementoes to look at in my old age to trigger the memory of limestone apostles staggering over me.

Finally, after a week of boredom and coaxing from my parents via Skype, I booked a one-day tour of the Great Ocean Road, a 150 mile-plus long stretch of highway along the Southern Coast of Australia advertised to offer some of the most spectacular beaches and precipices. I sat on the bus alone, thinking how embarrassing it would be to repeatedly ask the couples on my tour group to take my picture at each stop on our itinerary. But as I peered out over staggering cliffs and gawked at the endless expanse of ocean, I knew I could not leave Australia without any evidence that I had been there, without any mementoes to look at in my old age to trigger the memory of limestone apostles staggering over me, the sea breeze whipping past my face, and the unbounded feeling of awe permeating my consciousness.

At the third stop of the tour, I made a decision: I took a selfie.

taking selfie in australia
No longer morally opposed to selfies

Up until that point in time, I had been morally opposed to the selfie. In my view, selfies were for vain women showing off their makeup skills or beef-head dudes looking for an excuse to brag about the hours they spend in the gym. I pretentiously believed I was above the selfie, that it was a style of photography reserved for the self-absorbed.

But as I turned my iPhone camera towards myself and angled it just right, I realized why people actually take selfies. They want to capture a moment in time that brings them pride, preserve an artifact of some accomplishment, and, in a moment of capturing the success of the self, do not want to wait for someone else to photograph it.

Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was blinking or if the photographer had captured the exact extent of natural beauty that I wanted in my photograph. With the selfie, I had complete control – just like the moment I booked my ticket and decided to undertake the bold journey out of my comfort zone in the first place. The girl with the perfectly coifed lashes, the guy with the ripped abdominals, and I were one and the same. Taking a selfie, I realized, was an act of self-possession and self-determination.

With the selfie, I had complete control – just like the moment I booked my ticket and decided to undertake the bold journey out of my comfort zone in the first place.

After I started taking selfies, I felt more confident in my solo travels. I have selfies from all over the continent, from Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Sydney Opera House, with kangaroos, emus, and everything in between. I made friends along my travels and even have a few photographs that I didn’t take myself. But lifting that particular pressure off of my journey symbolically lifted the pressure of other people’s judgment and gave me the freedom to explore Australia uninhibitedly. 

For me, the selife was bigger than the postage-stamp dimensioned image it occupied on my Instagram. It represented liberation from my dependence on other people, my ability to be both adventurous and alone. It forced me to focus on the exciting opportunities life has to offer than how others perceive me. Solo travelers shouldn’t be afraid to embrace their inner narcissists and snap a selfie – they should consider it an emblem of independence.

sydney opera house selfie
Sydney Opera House selfie

 

 

How Taking Selfies Changed the Way I Travel

About Sam Schipani

Sam SchipaniSam Schipani is an undergraduate at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Political Science. She’s from Virginia, but calls herself a “New Yorker” pretty much any opportunity she gets.

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