Surveillance, Selfies and Funerals

Posted on June 20, 2019 by Martin Oaks under Uncategorized
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“Smile, you are on Candid Camera.”

That was the punch line of a popular television program that ran, in one form or another, for more than fifty years.

The creator, Allen Funt, and his crew would catch unsuspecting individuals in some foolish act on a hidden camera: at a critical point, the target would be informed that a camera had recorded the silly behavior.

It was all in good fun and the high rating numbers through the years underscored its popularity.

The heart of the gag which made the program successful was people in that time period were not accustomed to being furtively photographed — the novelty was key to the appeal.

Today we need not be informed that our activities are being recorded. People now alive are the most photographed in the history of the planet.

Surveillance is a fact of modern life.  The average American is caught on a security camera between seventy five and one hundred times a day — that doesn’t include license plate readings or satellite tracking.

The city of Chicago, for example, has a network of more than 30,000 recording devices.

“We are heading toward a total surveillance society in which your every move, your every transaction is duly registered and recorded by some computer,” privacy expert Jay Stanley recently said.

And these numbers don’t include the pictures we take of ourselves, in other words, selfies.

It is estimated that ninety three million selfies are posted online daily. Every couple of minutes we take more photos with our phones than our parents took in their entire lives.

In a world where we are documenting ourselves continually, some raise questions about the mental health of this obsession.  “I haven’t posted a selfie in a while, but I am still very cute, just to keep you updated,” is a funny line, but the truth therein can be troubling.

Psychological research has linked excessive selfie practices with both narcissism (grandiose exhibitionism) and self-objectification (viewing the body as an object). It has been shown to be highly addictive (which tends to lead to greater narcissism and objectification).

The profusion of surveillance cameras raises similar nettlesome concerns: at what point do privacy issues, civil liberty issues come into play?  And studies clearly show that these cameras produce a “halo effect,” that is the movement of antisocial behavior away from the monitored area into places hidden from view. Not reducing crime, but moving it to a more opportune geography.

Others see social media as a merger of technology that is a surveillance engine in itself.

Another overarching matter is the just the human decency involved — is it appropriate to record every event?

The deathcare industry presents an apt paradigm for this topic: should funeral rituals and circumstances attendant to a passing be photographed?  Are selfies acceptable at mourning rites?

Memorializing funerals is not new. Paintings of important passings date back centuries. In the Victorian era and after, it was not uncommon to be photographed in your finery next to an open coffin.

Televising the funeral of a state dignitary is a regular practice — photos taken at such ceremonies are often noteworthy (the Paul Morse shot at Barbara Bush’s service on April 21, 2018 of four past presidents and three first ladies immediately comes to mind.)

As Amy Vanderbilt correctly stated:” The rituals of a funeral and the protocol surrounding burial provide a framework that is not only comforting but also assures that the last rites are carried out with dignity and appropriateness, giving much-needed consolation to the bereaved.  The funeral is a way of reminding all of us of the continuum of life and death, of the importance of individual lives.”

Recognizing that the digital age offers tools that can ease grief, Dr. Mark Taubert, an expert in palliative medicine,  stresses that funeral photography is a “personal decision” that should be undertaken with due consideration.  He adds that sometimes families choose to be photographed with the loved one during the last days of the life of that loved one.  Whatever supports, whatever heals.

Cardinal rules: mourners should not be photographed without their permission; discretion should be the uppermost consideration; social media posting should occur only with family approval.

As technology marches forward, ethical decorum at funerals still has a healthy precedence over gratuitous candor — at least for now.



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