Social Semaphore over Smoothies: The Ironies of Thai Selfie-Culture

Every genre of photography exists for a reason and fulfills a role. By far and away the largest genre prevalent in the world today is the smartphone-facilitated snapshot taken specifically for sharing on social media. Who could have known that this genre would have had such a significant impact upon not only photography but also the way people live their lives as a whole?


Sure, this is old news, but it still never ceases to amaze me how witnessing examples of its impact on social behaviour first hand can bewilder, amuse and sometimes even sadden me as the observer.  There’s a version of these events and stories for every city and town in the world. This is what I witnessed in Bangkok recently:


I had been shooting street, it was a day when I was pushing myself and I had got up to maybe my third roll with a 35 Summaron on the M2.  Nice weather but hot and I needed a place to sit down, sort through some films in my pocket and replenish my body with fluids in a cool place. I had sat down in a nice cold fruit smoothie establishment in a pretty slick part of the city. I was sat at the back but next to the window with Leica bits, Kodak cannisters and a light meter strewn in front of me on the nice wooden butcher style table top. I was unwittingly announcing to the world that I was probably odd or eccentric, if the world were bothered enough to pay attention to me, which of course it wasn’t. Times like these you might get a puzzled smile from an older person or a Klingon hipster trying to shoot you that knowing look.


Through the large window I notice a young couple advancing toward this place, they were doing the annoying self-important walking whilst smart phoning and not looking up thing.  People engaging in this practice are basically relying on other people’s good will in getting out of their way. This is a classic ignorance and arrogance combination that has never sat well with me. Although it can sometimes be amusing when you see two people bumping into each other doing the same thing from different directions. I saw a guy drop his uncased IPhone to the floor once from such an affair. The jerky fumble dance that ensued as he tried in vain to catch it on the way down was almost Mick Jaggeresque. Upon hastily reclaiming his beloved device from the evil terra firma, his face looked like he had just lost a kidney. Talk about crash test dummies. I wonder what happens if a pedestrian crossing whilst texting gets hit by a motorist who is texting and driving? Would the universe have some way to just kind of let the two cancel other each out and chalk up another couple of strikes for team Darwin?


 Although I don’t always admit it, I sometimes gain twisted satisfaction in being deliberately ‘obtuse’ to these kind of offenders in public, I say the word in much the same way that Andy Dufresne did, although hopefully without  such dire consequences. I refuse to side step them, I stop short of actually speeding up and barging them head on but NO, I will not sidestep for thee. It’s on you. But that wasn’t what had really caught my attention about this pair of trendy lookers, they were both really quite photogenic and I was fervently hoping that they wouldn’t suddenly create the perfect street scene photograph right before me now in great light as I was sitting there with no film loaded in the M2. These ‘the one that got away’ moments haunt all photographers, especially those who shoot street with film cameras. The young girl was really very pretty, although she probably didn’t quite believe this herself as she was caked up in far more make up than was needed. Her boyfriend was quite the good looking young chap. It’s always a hallmark of a good looking bloke that even straight men notice how good looking you are. It’s probably a gold standard.


They enter the scene stage left, not looking up from their phones and yet still somehow managing to both get through the door and into the establishment. There is a long high bar and stools along another window. She sits at one stool and he automatically sits two stools down from her. This immediately piqued my interest as they were clearly a couple yet it was a given that this space was needed between them and you could just tell that this was a regular and well rehearsed drill of theirs. The young guy ordered smoothies of their choice without entirely looking at the menu at all; his eyes still never left the phone. As they waited for somebody to bring their order over, both of them anxiously tried several different positions on the seat to see which angle and light worked the best. They had both decided at the same time and without any communication between them, that their entry to a humble smoothie outlet was an event that they needed to be broadcast to the world. The young lady in question briefly applies either lip balm or lipstick of some kind and then warms up with a few shots. I am only two metres or so away and her smartphone is a newer, jumbo screened affair. I can see that she has already taken at least six photos but none of them have yet met with her approval. The smoothies arrive, now she needs to include this in the frame and proceeds to take another ten frames with her mouth sucking on the straw in a goofy manner but she’s still not happy. Pretty > Goofy, try again. She takes yet more frames with the smoothie on the bar top and her pretty head at just the right angle next to it. Getting closer now, she’s honing in on the desired result but I can see that she is less than thrilled to have me in the background of the shots.  I can just make myself out in them. She moves a fake potted plant very slightly (and slowly so as to not make it too obvious) with her fingertips jus a bit at a time until my unfortunate middle age has been perfectly blocked out of the frame by a fake cactus and that’s when I realize why they have sat so spaced apart. This lady needs her own ‘selfie-zone’ studio space everywhere she goes in which she can move herself and all the props within it to represent her own perfect, trite, saccharin sweet, artificial version of reality for just 1/500th of a second to show the world.


Don’t fear that her other half is getting his feelings hurt by accommodating such a requirement, for he himself is making full use of the space to take similar selfies of note wearing his sunglasses indoors. He’s less concerned with including the smoothie in the frame in case it compromises his high-maintenance,  fragile,  new-found masculinity. Yet nailing the perfect angle of the sunglasses and their reflection is an issue which seems to be challenging him somewhat. He has made at least twenty to thirty attempts at this shot despite being sat in good light with a very capable camera in his late model, high-end smartphone with huge display.


Already five to ten minutes has passed. Not. One. Word.  Not so much as a non sequitur.


I watched on. I couldn’t quite decide if it was great that they were so comfortable together that they could be like this with each other or whether it were in fact such a terrible shame that they were wasting their wonderful young days of love away uploading pictures of fruit smoothies to people that they haven’t seen since kindergarten. Desperate to plug into the grid and the hive matrix, real life was passing them by as their youth and good looks slowly melt away like the smoothies.  Too busy updating the world to actually be in it. Authors of their own irony. 'Virtual reality'…the first word means almost. This situation was almost real,  but not quite. Something occurred to me now that I’m entering middle age. I’m glad that in my first days of adulthood, a photo was something I took quickly with a compact camera and then got developed later on. I’m glad not to have missed out on that part of my life, love and relationships with others in the world due to being sucked into the matrix. I love technology but I also love life and wish to appreciate it with technology in it, not the other way around. Maybe that sounds like an old man saying “Get off my lawn”, I honestly don’t know. I’ll go one further, younger people should have their heads up more to see and enjoy the world instead of their heads down like the old people playing bingo who have already seen it.


The two young lovers continued their routine, not once interfering with each other’s flow or (im)personal space. I have to admit, it was seamlessly done and as smooth as their beverages. There was almost a sense of choreography to it, all which unwittingly revealed just how often they had practiced this rendition. All it really needed was Ravel’s Bolero in the background and it would have been bordering on a performance art piece in its own right.


My M2 was now loaded, the light had changed, and my cup of tea was done. I took a reading with my Sekonic, wound on and shot the first two blank frames out of the way and I was ready to go. As I stood up and got ready to leave, handsome boy had finally just about got his sunglasses to be exactly as he wanted them. By looking at him posing in his screen, I could see exactly where his eyes were gazing and he was completely oblivious to my new position or recent movement. I came in close and fired off a shot of both of them from the side. He didn’t flinch, relentless in pursuit of the ultimate selfie for the day. The M2 is a quiet machine so I went for broke and stepped in closer still to test the minimum focus range of the Summaron at around eighty centimetres, literally less than meter away from the guy’s face almost exactly square on from him at ninety degrees. I knew that he would probably catch me in the act but decided that I wanted the shot and would just smile and leave the premises as planned upon being busted. Amazingly, I took the second shot and still neither of them cottoned on. I was the invisible man. I went on my merry way.  You can see the shot of this couple on the ‘work’ page of this site (in the ‘E = Siam Squared Part II gallery).  Never did hear them speak. They didn’t even see me leave despite my doubling back around and walking past their window on the way to the next stage of my photographic jaunt. They were just so wholly consumed by sharing with their legions of adoring devotees. Were Lennon still alive today, he might have said “ Life is what happens while you’re busy making other fans.”