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The scourge of the selfie stick

Couple takes selfie with selfie stick

The selfie stick, dubbed the "wand of narcissism", is now an essential carry-on item for many travellers.

But Simon Tatz wonders why tourists find their own faces more fascinating than the wonders they behold.

In great news for narcissists, the National Gallery of Australia has lifted its ban on "selfies".

Visitors to the NGA will no longer be seen sneaking around surreptitiously taking pictures of themselves in front of Blue Poles or Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly series. What a relief this will be to the many patrons who, previously prevented from taking a selfie in front of an important artwork, feared their Facebook friends may not have believed they had actually been there.

There's nothing wrong with a selfie - defined as a self-portrait usually taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone and typically shared on social networking services - unless you are a prime minister who thinks humanity is interested in your bathroom mishaps. There is, however, something curiously awry when people travel the world, visit exotic locations, and still find their own face more fascinating than the wonders they behold.

This infatuation with selfies was brought home during my recent travels when I witnessed some truly breathtaking sights, although not of the great marvels of the world, as they were obscured by people lining up to take endless pictures of their own faces. And it wasn't just in galleries, museums, historic monuments or the natural wonders of the world.

The selfie stick, or the "wand of narcissism" as it was aptly described on Twitter, is an essential carry-on item for many travellers. On departure, people took selfies. On the plane there were selfies at 32,000 meters. Some took selfies at the airport with their airline carrier in the background. Selfies at the baggage carousel. And that was before their holiday had begun...

Tourists walked down ancient cobbled streets taking their own pictures; in galleries, museums and at architectural wonders, they enacted stupid poses, pretending to hold up giant stone columns or creating the appearance that a monument was really squeezed inside their outstretched fingers. I have seen tourists spend more time on their Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal selfie than they did marvelling at the actual attraction.

What is about the selfie that makes the taking of a self-portrait one of the most important activities to do when visiting earth's greatest wonders? In Tikal, the indescribably amazing Mayan ruins located in the lowland jungles of Guatemala, tourists climbed the giant stone temples to ... take photos of themselves! They wandered into restricted areas to get a picture, although not of the transfixing Tikal ruins.

I saw one man climb over a safety barrier so that his selfie wouldn't be blighted by other tourists. There was this big, sweaty face with a 20-story human-made ancient temple somewhere in the background. Then there were these young women, who glanced for a nanosecond at the incredible Mayan achievements constructed around AD500-900, before reaching for their selfie stick to click off a dozen pics. Then they walked away to find the next selfie possibility.

In my travels I have been fortunate to see some of the more incredible places in the world, yet finding time and peace to gape, to behold and think about the people, cultures or geological transformation that caused or created them is becoming almost impossible. When people are standing in front of what you came to see and regard; when they block your appreciation because their picture is more valuable than art, history, culture, then it becomes an act that can mar others' experiences and appreciation.

Will visitors to the National Gallery wanting to consider significant works of art have to battle with the selfie-takers? Will standing before an historic painting or sculpture and soaking in its worth be in conflict with those who want a photo of themselves standing before a great work of art? Will the selfie in front of the self-portrait take precedence over the viewing of the actual self-portrait?

So I ponder: what it is about the selfie that makes it so critical to so many, especially tourists? Is it to have proof that they have been there? Would family and friends not believe that they'd been to the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China unless their squinting dial was front and centre on Facebook? Have we become a society where validation of experience is in the form of the selfie?

Although I travel with a camera, I rarely take photos, especially not of my less than inspiring mug. I also do something very old-fashioned - I leave my mobile telephone behind. It's surprisingly liberating to look at something and imprint it in your memory. Of course, not having a mobile phone or small camera makes the selfie all but impossible. Unless you have arms like Inspector Gadget, it's damn hard to take a decent selfie with an SLR.

Like almost every tourist, I have asked strangers to take a photo of me and my wife, and we usually have at least one picture of us from our holidays. But I don't travel to see myself; I travel to see other cultures and sites.

If I want to know what I look like, I resort to that well-known invention - the mirror.