SOME years ago, a schoolteacher friend of mine described an
event it would be hard to imagine occurring today. Newly appointed
to the RE department of a school in the Home Counties, she found
herself accompanying a group of pupils on a school trip to the Holy
Land. As she and the students were getting off the bus outside
Jerusalem's Old City, a wholly unexpected tableau materialised
before their eyes, at once deeply strange and yet somehow utterly
On a dusty unmade track beyond the municipal car park, a man in
traditional Bedouin dress suddenly appeared, riding on a donkey,
and herding goats. It was as if the raw material for a parable was
being assembled in front of their eyes, or a page from their
illustrated Bibles back home was coming magically to life.
The girls immediately reached for their cameras, preparing to
transform the living image before them into a badly framed cliché
that would take its place alongside poolside snaps and photographic
records of similar high jinks. At that point, the senior teacher
intervened, suggesting that the girls should put down their cameras
and simply look.
IT WAS wise advice, which the historian Simon Schama would have
understood instinctively. Announcing, this week, the forthcoming
exhibition he has co-curated at the National Portrait Gallery, he
bemoaned the idiocy of the now ubiquitous "selfie", suggesting that
people's ob- session with their smartphones has made them prisoners
"of their own headphones".
"We ought to be a community in which faces exchange looks," he
went on, suggesting that we are in danger of shying away from the
shared reality of human interaction in favour of a two- dimensional
approximation of that reality, acted out beneath our downturned
The evidence, if we only look, is plain to see. On buses and
trains; in cafés,and parks; even - get this - at the 11.30 a.m.
sung eucharist in St Paul's Cathedral on Easter Day, people are
routinely to be seen pecking away at their screens rather than
experiencing the richness of what is going on all around them.
In fact, these days, we are inclined not to experience events at
all; simply to photograph them. Without any concentration on what
we are looking at, or consideration of the propriety or otherwise
of our actions, we automatically raise the viewfinder and
If the latest edition of the French magazine Paris
Match is to be believed, this phenomenon has now acquired
troubling proportions. The magazine has confirmed as genuine
recovered cameraphone footage of the harrowing final moments of the
150 passengers on board the Germanwings Flight 9525 that recently
crashed into the Alps.
What compelled someone at the extremity of terror to photograph
others similarly afflicted we can only guess at. In the same way,
it is hard to imagine why bystanders not only photographed a
suicidal man on a rooftop in Telford last month, but also
encouraged him to jump, before posting the images on YouTube.
The camera, we are told erroneously, never lies. But on
occasions it can, and increasingly does, corrupt.
Trevor Barnes reports for BBC Radio 4's Sunday