Death by Selfie: A Cautionary Tale

This is not an indictment of selfies or selfie culture, which have some redeeming and empowering benefits regarding increasing social sensitivity, self-esteem, and making marginalized communities more visible. Instead, this meander is a what-the-hell-is-happening? lament regarding yet another sad story of an Instagram couple falling to their deaths off a cliff (Taft Point) in Yosemite National Park on Thursday, October 25.

This is also not the first time someone has died at a national park attempting to capture an image that ends up killing or wounding another person. In mid-May 2015, a 16-year-old Tawainese girl was gored to death by a bison in Yellowstone National National Park while posing for a picture. Months later a 43-year-old Mississippi native was tossed up in the air after attempting to take a selfie with her daughter. The woman was treated for minor injuries, and one would hope has learned to keep a healthy distance between herself and wildlife. As the National Parks Services has cautioned, #bisonselfies are a bad idea, as are #bearselfies, which officially became a thing in 2014.

Exceedingly stupid and sad headlines, such as “Tourist Wades into Stream Full of Brown Bears to Take Selfie” and “Cliff Horror: Children Watch Parents Fall to Their Deaths at Cabo da Roca,” continue to be written. The on-going question is why? Why are we so enamored of taking photographs in dangerous situations?

Of course, the urge to be closer to nature is not a new or bad impulse. Humanity is hard-wired to crave nature and experience with the natural world. What is concerning is our need and desire to get so close to riskier and riskier backdrops and wild animals, who we then risk habituating and creating even more dangerous situations, when we could better experience nature without death-defying extremes and tactics.

And this continual problem of not knowing our boundaries and the real risks posed by 800-foot drops or apex predators is not limited to younger park-goers either. The global culture of curating our lives online transcends age. The concerning issue is the lengths some of us are willing to go to to get the ‘perfect shot.’ “Doing it for the ‘Gram” is a phrase and way of living that deserves reconsideration. We know Instagram and social media sites like it do not capture ‘reality’ and that for every staged post in Times Square with a “Beach Don’t Kill My Vibe” t-shirt, are a couple dozen images, likely more, that are not selected. A curated life aiming for the next impossible shot is inauthentic. As writer and artist Jennifer Rabin wrote, “… social media acts not as a reflection of our lives but as an advertisement for them: look at how happy we all are all of the time!

The Instagram account and the now offline blog of Meenakshi ‘Minaxi’ Moorthy, 30, and her husband Vishnu Viswanath, 29, was named ironically enough, Holidays and Happily Ever Afters. If you visit the Instagram account, you will see a technicolor rainbow of two people who seem very much in love while seizing the day. Keep in mind that death by selfie is still an exceedingly rare event. However, more people typically do die from selfie-related accidents than shark attacks, so also keep that in mind next time Shark Week airs.

What is so terrible is the young couple, Moorthy and Viswanath, who died last Friday, even warned followers against chasing a risky photo for the ‘gram. On March 28, 2018, Moorthy wrote, “A lot of us, including yours truly, is a fan of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers, but did you know that wind gusts can be FATAL??? Is our life just worth one photo?”

A haunting question, for sure.