No selfies

PictureBy the Danube in Regensburg.

I like to show my travel photos to captive audiences, like friends and family. One day while showing my photos I realized I wasn’t in any of them. Not one. They were just photos of scenery and buildings. I might as well have taken the photos from the internet and claimed to have taken them myself. In fact, I had no proof I’d ever left my apartment. If I’m not in the photos then my friends and family will think I never visited those places and am delusional. I needed a plan to get photos with me in them, but how, since I usually travel alone? As much as selfies can be useful in this case, I refuse to use them if possible. First, they’re just sad and narcissistic. Second, my arms aren’t long enough for me to get shots with lots of scenery, which is what I’m mostly interested in showing. My friends and family already know what I look like. They want to see where I’ve been. And so do I, frankly, because when I’m old the scenery will help me remember. And no, I’m not going to use a selfie stick. Those look ridiculous, and while one can get a slightly wider view, the stick still isn’t going to allow me to have a well-framed shot.

There is one other solution- ask a stranger. But wait! Isn’t that dangerous? Won’t I have to hand my phone to someone who might be a thief? What if they steal my phone?

Ah, good old paranoia, which in the case of a phone is perfectly warranted while traveling.  But I have a solution.

Make sure you can run faster than whomever you hand your phone to. Then you can chase them down and get it back.

Just kidding! But seriously, this can be done with minimal risk and you will get better photos and have more fun. There are two keys to making this work. The first is to buy a camera.

Buying a camera completely removes the risk that someone will steal your phone, because you are handing them your camera and not your phone. This has a few advantages. First, if someone does steal your camera, it will be a bummer but won’t wreck your vacation like losing a phone would (as long as you’ve been backing up your photos regularly). Second is that even an inexpensive compact camera will take better pictures than your phone. No matter how many billions of pixels your phone claims to have, there is no substitute for a real camera lens and purpose-built components. And last, who’s going to steal a camera anyway? Most people don’t even remember how to operate one.

The next thing you must do is identify your victim….uh…..I mean photographer. There are three categories: the single traveler, the couple, and the local.

Let’s start with the single traveler since this person is most like me.

Look for someone who isn’t using a selfie stick. They are a narcissist and won’t care how your photos turn out. Try to find someone who is using a camera, preferably nicer than yours so they won’t want to steal yours and they’ll know how to use a camera. Most people will, however, be using their phone. Do not scoff at them for their failure. Instead, observe them for a minute or two without staring or being creepy. See if they are in a hurry. If they aren’t, walk over and show them the camera, say “photo”, point to yourself and what you want in the background, and hand them your camera. Also show them where to push the shutter button. That’s it. If they agree, offer to take their photo as well- it’s only fair.

Choosing a couple follows most of the same rules as the single traveler, and if given a choice I’d choose a couple over a single person because odds are I can catch at least one of them if they run with my camera. The only real difference from the single traveler is that it’s often best to offer to take the couple’s photo first, especially if they are taking photos of each other. However, DO NOT choose a couple that appears to be on their honeymoon as they will want to get rid of you as quickly as possible. Remember, they are oblivious to anything but their wedded bliss, and won’t care how your photos turn out.

The local is a bit different, because they are often an employee of a bar, restaurant or store that I am patronizing. In those cases, find someone who looks bored. They’ll be happy to have something to break up the monotony of the day. Do not take a waitress’s kindness as an opening to ask her out. Remember, she’s bored and you need a good photo, end of story.  If I’m asking for a clerk’s time, I’ll usually buy something before asking for a photo. Trust me on that.

There is one other category and that’s the professional photographer, though you will only see this rare animal in major tourist cities like Prague. You’ll know the moment you see them because they’ll have multiple SLR cameras and often tripods and spare gear. I asked one on a bridge in Prague to take my photo and even though he spoke no English whatsoever, was delighted to take many, many photos of me at every conceivable angle.

That’s the way to do it if you have a camera. But wait? What if all you have is your phone?

You can still do this but have to be more cautious. Phones are more valuable to steal than cameras since people know how to use phones and they have decent resell value. But I’ve used my techniques even in cities that are renowned for tourist theft and have not yet had anything stolen.

For example, I was walking in Barcelona and noticed a hill with a castle. I hiked up to the castle but since I’d been in town a few days wasn’t carrying my camera. I wanted photos of me in front of the castle, but this was a dilemma. Who could I trust with my phone- especially given what I’d been told about Barcelona tourist theft (by the locals!)?

I scanned the people milling about the grounds until I spotted a single man looking up and waving towards the top of the castle. I looked up and saw what appeared to be his family waving back at him. Either that or he was their taxi driver. I assumed it was his family as I didn’t see a taxi nearby, and decided he’d be a good choice because should he steal my phone and run away, he’d be abandoning his family. That didn’t seem likely as he seemed to be quite fond of them.

Once he stopped waving I approached and asked him to take my photo, which he happily did, multiple times. He had apparently gotten bored with waving to his family and I was a respite.

I later approached another father after he took photos of his kids. The trick with asking families is to make sure they are calm and having a good day. That will be rare, as there is usually at least one child or parent in a bad mood, and you do NOT want to get caught up in that.

I admit to occasionally taking selfies when there are no other options. But I will never, ever be seen with a selfie stick. If you do spot me with one, please take it and beat me over the head with it until I come to my senses.


The castle in Barcelona.