Should you ask a stranger to take your travel photo during a pandemic?
On a recent visit to Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, David Dausey felt that familiar pang of parental duty: The father of two should snap a family photo and preserve this special moment for posterity.
He considered his options. They could take a selfie, but their heads would eclipse Frank Lloyd Wright's masterwork. He could press the button, sacrificing his own appearance in the portrait. Or he could enlist the services of a stranger. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, that once-harmless request was now a risky proposition.
"If you want something that's guaranteed to have droplets, it's your phone," said Dausey, an epidemiologist and provost at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "The smooth surface is ideal for spreading the virus."
Asking a stranger to take your photo, or fulfilling the favour, could conceivably violate several guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to handling a high-touch surface, parties on both sides of the lens will need to cross the social distancing red line twice - once to hand over the gadget and again to retrieve it. In addition, most people remove their masks for photos. Depending on the outcome of that encounter, your photo may mark an entirely different occasion.
"It's possibly a dying art," said Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every country in the world, who often relies on others to document his adventures. "Maybe not on a golf course or hiking, but if I were in a super touristy place, I would have some serious concerns."
In pre-coronavirus times, travellers would boldly approach passersby and hand over their camera or phone, a gesture as universally recognisable as a smile or thumb's up. In destinations beset with petty crime, visitors might proceed more cautiously, searching the crowd for someone with a cherubic face or fancy gear. The rise of the selfie and its appendage, the selfie stick, has weaned us off our dependency on randoms. David Campany, managing director of programs at the International Center of Photography in New York City, said the selfie is emblematic of a societal shift toward self-reliance and isolation. The photo-ask, he said, is a vestige of a more solicitous age. "It has an old-fashioned feel to it," he said. "You are trusting someone else to represent you. It's a touching moment of social exchange." I asked him whether it can survive the global crisis. "It could be the death knell," he replied. "Sad."
Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com and Frommer guidebooks, won't shed any tears if the practice disappears. Its demise will lower her stress levels.
"I'd go into a mini-freakout about whether my photography skills were up to snuff," she said. "I never want to disappoint anyone."
Shakeemah Smith, a travel influencer, deems the habit an inconvenience. However, when a family approached her in Antigua last month, she obliged.
"I felt that it would be somewhat rude to say no," she said. "So I'm like, okay, here are the best five seconds of their day."
Professional photographers aren't ready to write the eulogy yet. They say selfies are appropriate for playful, social-media-ready images, but if you want a well-composed group shot with context and complete human forms, you'll need an assistant behind the lens.
"I recognise the challenge and pride in composing a good image, and there is an added level of pride when that shot is completely executed by oneself, of oneself," said Eric Guth, a freelance photographer and instructor aboard Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic vessels.
Guth considers the role of spontaneous documentarian an honour. "It's often flattering when someone picks you out of the crowd to help them capture a lasting moment," he said.
Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, has empirical proof of the practice's psychological and social benefits. Last year, he and a colleague, Xuan Zhao, conducted a study that involved strangers ("requesters") asking strangers ("helpers") to take their photo in a Chicago park. Of the 57 requesters, 53 recorded a successful interaction with the first person they approached; the remaining four achieved their goal with a second individual.
"The expectation was that people don't want to help, but people reported feeling very happy doing something for others," said Epley, who presented his findings at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in June last year. "They felt surprisingly happy in these little moments of connecting with a stranger."