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Must Read

Opinion

Fifth column

June 2, 2018

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Selfiestan

In a latest tragic incident, a 20-year-old Indian student died while taking a selfie during a trip in Western Australia. Last week, Ankit was with a group of students visiting the port town of Albany when he slipped off a 40-metre precipice while taking a picture, and plunged into the ocean.

This week, two women in Germany suffered serious injuries after lightning struck them while they were taking selfies in western Germany. According to a police spokesman, the lightning tore through their clothes, and one of the victims had to be resuscitated by paramedics and “remains in intensive care with life-threatening injuries”.

In early May this year, a man in the eastern Indian province of Odisha was mauled to death while trying to take a selfie with an injured bear that he had spotted across the road while driving through a forest. According to the Hindustan Times, when Prabhu Bhatara was being mauled, his colleagues watched the entire act from their car. They “were busy in shooting the incident on their mobile phones instead of trying to rescue him”. A stray dog that tried to rescue the man, but to no avail.

Surprisingly, this was the third wild animal-related selfie death in Odisha in the past one year; the other two were connected with elephants. Last December, a youth was killed by a wild beast while trying to take a selfie. Earlier in September, another youth got trampled to death by an elephant under similar circumstances.

India has emerged as a world leader in selfie deaths as more and more people across towns and villages have access to cheap smartphones and quality internet at bargain prices. This has provoked an explosion in the internet usage and people’s interest in social media to post their pictures and boast about their exploits. According a study published last year, India had the highest number of reported selfie deaths across the world. Between March 2014 and September 2016, 60 percent of all ‘selfie deaths’ occurred in India – 76 out of the total 127 deaths from across the world in the 18-month period.

The obsession of people, particularly those who belong to the younger generation, to record and share moments from their life – from the mundane to the extraordinary – has led to a spurt of deaths across the world. A 2015 study in the UK claimed that 20 percent of young Britons had taken selfies while driving a car. The selfie-takers or selficists have died of carelessness just because they are driven by their desire to attain a perfect shot in precarious situations. They have fallen to their deaths while losing their balance and being trampled or mauled by wild beasts; others have been killed while posing with guns that accidentally fired bullets. A news report claims that in 2015, more people were killed while taking selfies than through shark attacks.

The recent death of Prabhu Bhatara in Odisha might have been inspired by the ‘bear selfies’, a trend that gained momentum in 2014 in the US. It was first reported by the US Forest Service that people were getting too close to bears and other dangerous animals and taking photographs and videos. The Forest Service issued advisories and raised awareness about the dangers, but few people listened.

In Bhatara’s case, he was also advised by his fellow passengers not to take up the ill-fated adventure. But he did not listen as he was seeking a thrill and, perhaps, hoped to gain a few likes and comments on social media once the ‘brave pose’ was posted.

The worldwide publicity of the selfie deaths is now pushing the authorities to initiate mitigating measures. In Mumbai, the financial capital of the India, the police are now raising awareness campaigns and also deploying police parties at dangerous places, including beaches, to “not...let people pull dangerous stunts”. In Ooty, a famous boating lake in India, the authorities have banned people from taking selfies while boating and have made it mandatory to wear lifebelts. In 2015, the Russian Ministry of Interior released a ‘selfie safety guide’ to warn about common dangerous behaviour during selfie sessions.

Selfies at religious gatherings has created their own dynamics. Of late, Haj and Umrah had become prime selfie-generating destinations as millions of pilgrims would indulge in what was described by some conservative Saudi ulema as a “touristy behaviour” that compromised their devotion and quality of prayer. Such a trend was not only endorsed by celebrities and sports personalities, but politicians as well. While reiterating one’s faith and exhibiting devotion, such photographs can also act as an effective tool against enemy propaganda.

Taking selfies or photographs at holy places might feel gratifying, but such behaviour interrupts smooth movement, causing an artificial and unpredictable surge in people’s circulation at public events such as the Haj. This could easily cause accidents. Given the number of people that perform Haj or Umrah, this is a sure recipe for a massive disaster. This is why the Saudi authorities announced a ban on selfies and videos by pilgrims in Makkah and Medina last year. This was done “to preserve the tranquility of the holy sites” as Mashhour Al Mun’emi, one of the officials at the Masjid Al-Haram, “urged worshippers to concentrate on performing their rituals rather than taking photographs”.

Arab News, an English newspaper in the Saudi kingdom, reported that “the aim of banning photography at the Grand Mosque was to stop wasting time looking for the perfect angle for a better photograph or video, which could bother other worshippers and disturb the performance of their rituals”.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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