Cause of Death: Selfie
A recent report found that 259 people died between 2011 and 2017 while stepping in front of the camera in often dangerous destinations. Our writer went deep on the psychology of selfies to figure out what's behind our obsession with capturing extreme risk-taking.
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It began as retribution for a lost bet: in 2014, Gigi Wu, an experienced hiker from Taiwan, posed atop a snow-covered mountain, clad only in a bikini. The stunt resulted in a series of undeniably gorgeous photos. So Wu, a model and adventure sports personality, kept at it for the next four years, photographing herself on the summits of more than 100 of Asia’s most impressive peaks, always in a bikini. The images are at once absurd and beautiful, a juxtaposition Wu told Taiwan TV that she adored.
They also appealed to followers, and according to BuzzFeed, she quickly amassed thousands of them. Fans loved the way she worked both the climbing and bikini personas and encouraged her to keep at it. Haters, meanwhile, wondered why Wu would be so stupid as to climb in scanty swimwear. Actually, she didn’t—the bikini always came along in her backpack, in addition to her satellite phone, first-aid kit, and other supplies.
This January, Wu embarked upon a solo multiday traverse of Taiwan’s Yushan National Park, home to a series of 10,000-plus-foot peaks. But while attempting a summit in the park’s central mountain range, the 36-year-old Wu fell an estimated 60 to 100 feet and landed in a remote ravine. She contacted friends with her satellite phone and reported that she was unable to move the lower half of her body. They, in turn, alerted emergency workers.
The weather was bad, with temperatures below freezing. After several failed helicopter attempts to reach her, rescuers set out on foot. Wu, who was fully clothed, wrapped herself in an emergency blanket and tried to stay hydrated. According to Hong Kong’s TVB news channel, she wrote in her journal and penned quick notes to loved ones.
It would take the search-and-rescue team 43 hours to reach Wu. By the time they arrived, she had died, either from hypothermia or internal injuries or a combination of both.
In the following days, Wu’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were deleted and replaced with a memorial page, which has garnered comments from detractors and fans alike.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise.
Wu’s death, after all, is only the latest in a string of selfie-related fatalities. Termed “killfies” by some social media researchers, these accidental deaths have involved social media personalities and, of course, adventurers. Canadian rapper Jon James McMurray perished last October after crawling out onto the wing of a Cessna while filming a music video. Last October also witnessed the much-publicized deaths of travel bloggers Meenakshi Moorthy and Vishnu Viswanath, who apparently fell while taking a selfie at Yosemite’s Taft Point, a popular rock outcrop with an 800-foot drop. A month prior, Tomar Frankfurter, an 18-year-old from Jerusalem, also fell to his death in the park while reportedly taking a selfie at Nevada Fall. Last July, three stars of High on Life, a popular YouTube thrill-seeking adventure travel show, plummeted to their deaths at a waterfall near Squamish, British Columbia. And in late March, a man from Macau fell 1,000 feet to his death while attempting to take a selfie on the rim at Grand Canyon West.
Then there are the hundreds of other people you’ve probably never heard about who died trying to get the perfect cliffhanger photo. The student who fell 700 feet at Ireland’s iconic Cliffs of Moher in January. The 68-year-old woman who was fatally scalded in a Chilean geyser. The man in his fifties who was struck by lightning while hiking with a selfie pole in the Welsh mountains. The teenage girl swept away by an unexpected wave on a beach in the Philippines.
For each of these recorded deaths, there are also thousands of near misses (misfies?). These include such high-profile incidents as the woman who, in March of this year, allegedly climbed over the barrier at an Arizona zoo to take a selfie with a jaguar and was mauled by the animal; the infamous 2014 bear selfies taken by visitors at Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek Visitor Center during the creek’s annual salmon run; and several reports in recent years of individuals who have been gored by bison at Yellowstone. No one died in those incidents, but authorities say they could have. Selfies have resulted in peloton crashes at the Tour de France and may have contributed to a helicopter crash over New York City in March 2018. According to a report in the New York Times, the pilot, who was the only survivor, told the National Transportation Safety Board that the crash may have occurred because a passenger was trying to take a photo of his feet dangling out the helicopter door—a so-called “shoe selfie”—and might have accidentally hit the emergency fuel shut-off. All five passengers died.
It’s easy to write off these tragedies as catastrophically bad judgment. Armchair internet commentators have had a field day with each reported death. For every lament of young lives lost in the wake of Moorthy and Viswanath’s deaths, you’ll find an equal number of comments about how the two were “surprisingly stupid,” “coddled,” “careless,” or “self-obsessed.” When the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department released its medical report in January, it stated the couple was “intoxicated with alcohol prior to death.” Scorn on the internet erupted further: “Narcissism!” “Stupidity!” It didn’t seem to matter that the medical examiner also made clear that it was impossible to determine the amount of alcohol in their systems.
The National Park Service has yet to release its report detailing the inquiry into the death of Moorthy and Viswanath. (A Freedom of Information officer at the Park Service told me in March that it could be “weeks or even months” before the report is finished.) It’s unlikely that the report will shed much light on the case even after it’s made public. We may never know exactly why or how Moorthy and Viswanath fell or what caused Wu to stumble.
It can feel somehow reassuring to condemn deaths like these as foolish or self-absorbed, but that doesn’t seem entirely fair. And, frankly, emerging research doesn’t support that position.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that of the 259 verifiable selfie-related deaths recorded from 2011 to 2017, more than a quarter occurred while the selfie-taker was engaged in what the study authors call “non-risky behavior.” To unpack that further, the authors found that the majority of deaths involving young men do appear to have been caused by risky behavior, while the actions of over half of females who died taking a selfie were deemed “non-risky.”
So, what’s really going on here? Is Gigi Wu’s summit project really all that different than the stylized images we love to see in glossy magazines like Outside? Do we put it in the same category as, say, elite athlete Alex Honnold’s epic free climb of El Capitan and the Oscar-winning Free Solo documentary about his death-defying attempt?
I asked social media and psychology experts to weigh in on questions like these. What they had to say may surprise you.
Sarah Diefenbach is a professor of consumer psychology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich and lead author of the 2017 research article The Selfie Paradox. She says that, extreme or otherwise, we take selfies for all kinds of reasons: to communicate with people we love, to build self-esteem, to curate our self image, to chronicle our personal histories, and—increasingly—to build our personal brands.
The branding may be new, Diefenbach says, but the desire to control our images and communicate with our community is not. In fact, she contends, this kind of behavior is part of our very DNA.
Our species evolved as hypersocial creatures uniquely concerned about how others perceive us. We have a much longer childhood than most other mammals, and that is by design: we need that time to figure out how to assimilate into our culture and assert an identity. “We have always had a very basic need for self-presentation,” Diefenbach explains.
Will Storr, author of the 2017 book Selfie: How the West Became Obsessed, agrees. He says we’ve always wanted to document our feats in living color—we just had to wait for technology to catch up before we could do it efficiently.
Prior to front-facing cameras, Storr says, we found other ways to grab the attention that comes with a selfie. Aristocrats commissioned portraits of themselves. Explorers carried cameos of loved ones. Pioneers hung sketches and silhouettes of themselves on cabin walls. Beginning in 1925, people began queuing up to mug for photo-booth cameras. Two decades later, Edwin Land brought us the Polaroid camera, making our instant image gratification that much easier. In the 1950s, the advent of the home slide projector meant an entire generation could hold friends, neighbors, and extended families hostage while they clicked through image after image of vacations and graduations.
That impulse to fashion our image publicly has only increased in the digital age—which means it’s that much harder to get noticed.
When we take a selfie, our attention is focused on the camera and the shot, not where we are placing our feet or what’s around us. We literally have no idea that we are about to step off a cliff or tumble over a waterfall.
The problem, experts say, is what happens inside our brain while we’re snapping the photos. Psychologists call it selective attention or inattentional blindness. The basic concept is this: our brain can’t possibly process all the stimuli it receives at one time, so it makes choices about what to privilege and what to ignore. Maybe you’ve seen the video often used to illustrate the concept: viewers are asked to count the number of times a small group of people pass a basketball back and forth. At the end of the video, the narrator asks viewers if they noticed the guy in the gorilla suit sauntering through the frame. Many people don’t. Why? Because they were concentrating on something else—in this case, counting passes.
That’s exactly what happens when we take a selfie: our attention is focused on the camera and the shot, not where we are placing our feet or what’s around us. We literally have no idea that we are about to step off a cliff or tumble over a waterfall. Put another way, we don’t intend to engage in risky behavior; we just don’t realize we’ve wandered into that realm until it’s too late.
But what about those people taking selfies who are deliberately seeking out risk?
Storr, who is quick to say he doesn’t condone them, nevertheless contends there’s a pretty easy way to make sense of these high-risk selfies in our contemporary culture.
He points to the 1980s, the era of cutthroat Wall Street behavior and the rise of celebrity athletes. It was then, he said, that our heightened need for self-individuation really took hold. Sports like alpine skiing and mountain biking began to supplant more team-minded pastimes. So did extreme sports. In the late 1970s, fewer than 80 people per year attempted a summit of Everest. By 1990, that number more than tripled. Last year, hundreds of people reached the summit.
Why this huge influx? Because, Storr says, there are fewer, more demonstrative ways of asserting your status in our culture than conquering a mountain, donning a base-jumping squirrel suit, or dropping a big wave. Today, none of the above happened if you don’t have a pic.
Look at the urban roofing craze, where selfie-takers deliberately scale impossibly high buildings in search of the perfect shot.
Like Victor Thomas. He began as a more traditional photographer—mostly taking photos of subjects in less daring environments. But he says the quest for innovation—and the need to carve out a bigger social message—pushed him to more extreme settings. A Brooklyn native, Thomas found a niche taking photos and selfies from the tops of Manhattan high-rises, often dangling off an edge or with a precipitously placed foot.
The switch has been an undeniable boon for his career: Thomas now has more than 32,000 Instagram followers at @vic.invades, along with sponsorships and invitations to exhibit his work that he says he’d never get otherwise. Thomas is quick to admit he loves that. But he also says there’s something more substantive driving his extreme selfies, and that’s much-needed social critique.
“I want to capture perspectives other people can’t have,” Thomas says. “Where I come from, people don’t have penthouse views. I want to take those from the rich and give them back to community.”
He knows what critics have to say—that he’s taking unnecessary risks, that a fall could endanger or even kill bystanders or rescuers called out to save him. They point to accidents like the one that claimed the life of stuntman Wu Yongning. At 26, Yongning had made a name for himself after posting terrifying selfies of himself unroped atop buildings and spires around the world. In November 2017, he slipped while dangling from a 62-story building in Changsha, in central China, and fell to his death. His video camera recorded the whole thing. When that footage was released, the social media world went nuts, deriding the deceased Yongning for stupid recklessness.
Thomas says he has definitely received similar censure, but he’s as determined now as he was then. “I don’t have much else to say to haters at this point other than just enjoy the art and have some faith in me,” he says. “Trust that I’m in the right state of mind to do these things. I go in with a clear head and a sense of purpose.”
Maybe, at some point, that sense of purpose justifies the risk.
That’s how noted wildlife conservation photographer Aaron Gekoski makes sense of his selfies. Prior to winning the Natural History Museum in London’s 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, Gekoski became an international sensation after posing for a selfie in a frenzy of black-tipped sharks. The images went viral. It was, he says, a deliberate stunt, but far from a gratuitous one.
“The selfie element was a vehicle—it was a hook that allowed me to talk about shark conservation,” Gekoski says. “That’s the joy of social media. I want people to feel something. If something happens to me along the way, I’ll know I’ve done it for a noble or right cause. My camera was a weapon and a force for good.”
That message has motivated Gekoski to step in front of the camera with increasing frequency as he investigates the illegal wildlife trade and environmental degradation. But he is quick to point out that he is most often working alongside biologists who are experts in recognizing signs of stress or growing aggression in animals like sharks or elephants.
That is one of multiple factors that would appear to distinguish Gekoski from, say, a man who was mauled to death by a bear last year in India after attempting to take a selfie with the animal, or teenagers around the world who have been electrocuted while hopping on the roofs of trains.
These types of scenarios make up an increasing number of selfie fatalities. They are driven by risk for the sake of risk, and they may well be the hardest to prevent, though not for lack of trying.
Pamplona, for instance, has begun fining people who attempt to take selfies during the running of the bulls. A selfie attempt there could now cost you $3,000 or more. After the 2014 bear selfie incidents at Lake Tahoe, the U.S. Forest Service instituted a new visitor plan that includes fines for people who get too close to the animals. If that kind of behavior continues, says spokesperson Heather Noel, they’re prepared to close the area outright during salmon season.
Meanwhile, an article as early as 2016 in the Journal of Travel Medicine recommended that physicians counsel their patients about the dangers of selfies and provide printed material outlining such risks. After the January death at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s junior health minister recommended installing “selfie seats” to ensure the safety of tourists. Last year, a joint initiative between the Department of Tourism and the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin saw the installation of dozens of selfie stands in state parks. There’s even an app—called Saftie—that uses complex algorithms to signal to selfie-takers when their background appears unsafe.
Those sorts of initiatives could help with selfie deaths caused by inattentional blindness, says psychologist Keith Campbell, co-author of the 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Or, sadly, they may help those individuals looking for the riskiest selfie spot.
The fact remains that, right or wrong, our culture encourages extreme selfies. Acquiring a large social media following can be downright lucrative. Meanwhile, companies like Red Bull seem to promote risky selfies, making it that much more appealing to folks looking for sponsorship or more followers.
The only way to shut down those sorts of images, some say, is to strip them of their popularity. Realistically, that would require involvement from the media platforms that host the images.
There is precedent for this sort of action. Instagram, for instance, recently unveiled a new feature called “Protect Wildlife on Instagram.” Try searching for #slothselfie or #elephantselfie, and you’ll get a pop-up warning you about animal abuse. Still, it’s far from a perfect system—the pop-up itself can be easily dismissed with the swipe of your thumb. Meanwhile, the hashtag #bearselfie includes no warning. (Though, in fairness, it will mostly give you the best in full-figured gay men.) And #sharkselfie will still take you right to 34,300 posts featuring people posing with sharks. Most of those shots appear to have been taken at an aquarium or Photoshopped, but not all. Last summer, 19-year-old model Katarina Zarutskie made international news after she was bitten while posing for an Instagram photo with a shiver of nurse sharks while on vacation in the Bahamas.
Facebook, which purchased Instagram in 2012, relies heavily on its community standards for policing questionable content. Those standards state that images glorifying violence or self-harm will be removed. Meanwhile warning labels are added to any graphic content, including artistic depictions of the human body. The company uses a sophisticated combination of artificial intelligence and anthropological analysis to spot problematic posts, including dangerous viral challenges, like the “Kiki Challenge,” which had kids darting out in front of moving cars while dancing.
“When it comes to safety and conservation, we have policies that prohibit content that may lead to real-world harm, and we aim to better educate people on our site about creating content that exploits wildlife and nature,” a representative for both Facebook and Instagram, who asked to remain unnamed, told me by phone.
Twitter suspends the accounts of anyone posting images of self-harm. YouTube states that it prohibits “violent or gory content intended to shock or disgust viewers.” That apparently does not include someone falling to their death, since that’s where I found the video of Yongning’s deadly slip, which I have chosen not to link to here.
I contacted Twitter and YouTube to ask if they have any plans to review or strengthen guidelines concerning the posting of dangerous selfies. Neither company responded. The representative for Instagram and Facebook told me that they are constantly refining their guidelines and means for detecting problematic images, but they don’t have any concrete plans to begin policing selfies more robustly.
As for the National Park Service, chief spokesperson Mike Litterst says the agency has no intention of creating systemwide selfie policies. A few NPS properties, including New Jersey’s Thomas Edison National Historical Park and New York’s Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, have banned selfie sticks, but that’s more “related to the protection of cultural resources,” Litterst says. Other parks, like Yellowstone, ask visitors to pledge that they will “take safe selfies by never approaching animals to take a picture.”
Scott Gediman, the public affairs officer at Yosemite, told me by email that the park does not intend to make any changes to its policies after the recent deaths there, including at Taft Point, where Moorthy and Viswanath died.
There are fewer, more demonstrative ways of asserting your status in our culture than conquering a mountain, donning a base-jumping squirrel suit, or dropping a big wave.
To be fair, we still don’t know what caused their fall. Immediately after the accident, Viswanath’s brother, Jishnu Viswanath, said that the couple may have been taking a selfie—the Park Service found a camera and tripod where Moorthy and Viswanath fell. But then, late last year, Jishnu, who resides in Australia, announced on Facebook that he was done talking to the media, saying that news of the couple’s death had been filled with too much “misinformation.”
In the end, Meenakshi Moorthy may have the last word on her death in an Instagram post she published on @holidaysandhappyeverafters seven months before she died.
It was a photo of her sitting on the rim of Grand Canyon, along with a long caption that read in part:
Sooo today on #socialmediabadasstribe we are talking about limits of #doitforthegram.–Yeah sure it can be limitless but guys, we reaaaallly need to have boundaries(this is handy as life lessons too but we will revisit that later–)
A lot of us including yours truly is a fan of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs ⛰and skyscrapers–, but did you know that wind gusts can be FATAL??? ☠️ Is our life just worth one photo?