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The Problem with Selfies

A guy is taking a selfie with a box that says "donation"

Ok. I fully get selfies and how they can add value to your life, memories, and for the enjoyment of people who love you. My Pacific Solo project is all about me and my ugly mug appears in almost every YouTube thumbnail and across my social media channels. But for most of my professional life in the charity world, I have shunned selfies and the reason why is that inadvertently, through my own self-glorification, I could potentially exploit the needs of others and diminish their significance as the real heroes. My introduction to the dangers of selfies was over 40 years ago, long before the word 'selfie' became part of our lexicon.

person posing for a photo in front of a united nations military vehicle

I had just returned from South Asia where I had worked in refugee camps. It was my first volunteer stint with HOPE International Development Agency, and upon my return from Thailand, HOPE asked me to come on-staff and help raise attention, and money, for people displaced by war. I gladly agreed. It was a critical time and I genuinely wanted to help the thousands waiting to find a good life in Canada who were not able to go back to their homeland. But also, I found it cool that, for the first time, I had a small office. I decided to decorate it with items from my time in the war zone and framed photos of me in the refugee camps. I brought my boxes from home, spent 2-3 hours hanging framed photos of me and displaying the various memorabilia, and then awaited my first visitor who would no doubt be impressed, right?

It was not long before the first visitor to the Lowell Sheppard Exhibition arrived. It happened to be David Mckenzie, the leader of HOPE. He paused at the entrance, glanced around the room, then sat across from me at the desk. I was wearing a smug smile.

I was shaken and forever changed by the words that he spoke. His words were few but came as an unexpected shot across the bow of my pride, forever putting me on alert to the dangers that lurk near the center of my ego and value system. "Lowell, this is not what we are about." He then rose and left. At first I was angry but my reaction swiftly turned to shame, as I realized, that I had made a grave error. I had made myself the center of the story rather than putting forward those whose story it really was.


A light went on, at that moment, that has shone brightly ever since but is occasionally dimmed by my ego. Repentance means 'to turn'. I have been repenting ever since... turning from a human desire for self aggrandizement. It is no longer on the walls of an office on South Main Street, Vancouver, Canada but rather, on timelines and platforms.

Old lady sitting, wearing traditional clothes and smiling at the camera

Of course, motivations are mixed for all of us in all that we do. That is fine. Sometimes we ARE the story, our family and friends want us to be, or our business may require us to be. But when it comes to wanting to help those who are suffering, poor, or brutalized by war, famine, or natural disaster, it is incumbent upon us, who are in a position to help, to do so with the minimum of attention on ourselves and do all we can to keep others as the subject in the picture, and enhance their dignity and affirm their strength as they fight the odds. After all, all I have to do is spend some money, get on an airplane, walk into the frame, and return to our safe place we call home while they remain, trapped and fighting.

Children from the village of Kuta smiling and playing

I was going to title this article Selfies Are Evil but decided against it. If you have read this far, let me state that in fact selfies can be evil. The technical description for this type of evil is instrumental evil, which is an unintentional evil we perpetrate on others by our actions or non-action. I applaud those who seek to support others in need. And for those of us who have the privilege of doing so, we must strive to be altruistic and keep ourselves on the sideline and out of frame. Sure, if you feel it is appropriate to be in a picture or two as proof to others that you are an eyewitness and can vouch for the credibility of the project, and the need it is addressing, and by sharing it will result in more help for those in need, then do so knowing that it is a tradeoff. So be wise, discreet, and careful that you feature yourself rarely and only when there is a good cause.

You see, it is their story that needs to be told, not mine.

a selfie photo including multiple members of the family having dinner
Capturing a memory with family

That's the problem with selfies. Sure, if you are on the beach, having a nice meal, spending an anniversary with your beloved other... those make up an important part of your story. And, your story is valid so you have every right to tell it. But when you are someplace or with someone, with the aim of making a difference and helping, then go invisible, stay in the background, and seek opportunities to convey to others through pics, blog and messages, that real story, the story that matters most, the story of others whose whose tenacity, bravery, endurance and ingenuity is silenced by crushing poverty and suffering.

Capture that? And your posts will be a compelling read and experience for your social network.



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