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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Are you suffering from selfie-itis?

Our obsession with photography and sharing our photos is not without consequence, writes Justin Thomas

Mountaineers take a selfie during a stop on a climb in South Korea.  Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA
Mountaineers take a selfie during a stop on a climb in South Korea. Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA

From its interior to its exterior, from its function to its form, Louvre Abu Dhabi is awesome. I use that word in its most traditional sense: the museum inspires the emotion of awe, an intoxicating blend of wonder and amazement with a strong base note of reverence. I have known Louvre Abu Dhabi since it was an embryonic architect’s model on display at Emirates Palace hotel. It was magical and medicinal to finally wander its labyrinthine halls, imbibing the hallowed heritage of humanity.

My only gripe – I feel it necessary to have at least one – was the incessant click of smartphones, snap, snap snapping away, greedily gobbling up everything on display. A picture might paint a thousand words, but the mindless mechanics of much smartphone photography robs the end product of any poetry. With so much beauty, fame and wonder on display the cameras were in paparazzi mode.

The growth in photography has risen exponentially in the past few years, in line with smartphone ownership. It is estimated that since 2010 the number of photos taken each year has tripled, and it is expected to reach the 1.3 trillion mark in 2017. Because of the way we now share our pictures on social media, it has become possible to quantify, with a fair degree of accuracy, which are the most photographed attractions in the world.

In 2016, based on data from a Google-powered photo-sharing app, the number one spot went to the Guggenheim museum in New York, followed by Trinita Dei Monti, a Renaissance-era church in Rome, while number three was Parc Guell in Barcelona. Judging by the snap-fest taking place at the iconic Louvre Abu Dhabi, it won’t be long before it or one of its exhibits makes the most photographed list too.

Our obsession with photography and sharing our photos is not without consequence. The selfie, for example, is beginning to be discussed in psychiatric circles. For instance, psychiatrists at Thailand’s department of mental health issued a warning that those not getting enough positive feedback for their selfies often feel compelled to take and post more images, perhaps even increasingly risqué or shocking images. This cycle of seeking self-esteem boosts by posting selfies is ultimately viewed as having negative consequences for mental health, primarily when the expected level of positive feedback is not achieved.

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It is also worth considering that the selfie is not always a decontextualised headshot. Very often it is an attempt to capture a special moment and generate evidence of one’s involvement – “this is me in front of Salvator Mundi at Louvre Abu Dhabi”. Ironically, however, there is emerging evidence that this snap-happy attitude may be degrading our memories of magic moments.

"Photo-taking impairment effect" is a condition described by Dr Linda Henkel, a cognitive psychologist at Fairfield University, Connecticut. In an article published in the journal Psychological Science, Dr Henkel describes an experiment where one group of students were asked to photograph exhibits at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, while another group browsed the displays, eyes-only. When tested the following day, the eyes-only students were far better at recognising items from the museum’s exhibit. Dr Henkel suggests that when we photograph objects it is often a somewhat mindless activity, and consequently the memory doesn’t hold.

In our attempts to capture magic moments, we may be losing them. But who needs memory, when you can just review the images? Of the estimated 1.3 trillion pictures taken this year, how many of them will ever be seriously looked at again? Furthermore, the poor organisation and sheer volume of the digital images some of us amass makes reviewing them a daunting task, especially when we are preoccupied capturing new images.

Would it be too much of a progressive or radical step to ban selfies and photography in certain public spaces? I don't think so.