Before this morning, I hadn’t heard of the La Plata dolphin.
The La Plata, or ‘Franciscana’ dolphin as they’re also called, is a rare species of river dolphin that actually inhabits a combination of freshwater and saltwater bodies (confused little buggers). They can mostly be found in the shallow coastal waters off Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. They measure around 1.5m in length and weigh about 50kg when fully grown. La Plata dolphins are dwindling in number and classified as a vulnerable species; there are thought to be only 30,000 left in the world.
But following the stomach-turning events of this week, that estimate has fallen to 29,999.
Distressing photos surfaced online today of a baby La Plata dolphin being held aloft in a crowd of about 25 tourists on an Argentinian beach. It had been swimming close to the shore and become stranded in the sand, when tourists first spotted the animal and began taking photographs on their camera phones.
Instead of returning the dolphin to deeper water where it would be able to swim away, the tourists passed it around between them, posing for selfies with the struggling, squirming animal. This continued until well after the dolphin had overheated and died. Its corpse was later discarded on the sand and the crowd moved on.
The story is extremely upsetting and also, a little confronting.
It indicates that the social media age we’re all a part of – and contribute too – has well and truly gone too far.
I haven’t previously subscribed to the theory that selfies are solely a product of narcissism. Nor have I believed that modern society’s obsession with constantly taking snaps of the banalities of everyday life was particularly problematic. But when the desire to ‘capture a moment’ not only ruins that moment but kills a living creature, the art of the selfie can no longer be dismissed as mere harmless fun.
Since whatever beginning you believe in, human beings have sought to create records of our existence. Our time on earth is, by definition, temporary and this prompts a natural desire to leave something behind. Some lasting record of who we are, what we looked like, how we lived, what happened to us. To my mind, selfies and photographic social media are simply another technological advance is the human pursuit of posterity; a form of visual diary.
The problem is not so much in the capturing, as it is in the broadcast.
They could have let the animal swim away. They didn’t (post continues after video):
The frenzied response of the tourists who killed that dolphin wasn’t driven by a desire to record the moment for their own personal fulfilment. A photo of a happy, healthy little dolphin swimming back to its family or the memory of helping return him to the water could have achieved that. No, those tourists wanted a photo that could be shared; something that would prompt praise, awe, jealousy, admiration or some other comparative feeling, in the minds of others.
They wanted external validation for an unusual and exciting moment in their lives.
And – unconsciously – they placed that need for validation above the needs of the La Plata dolphin.
We live in an age that is governed by the mantra ‘photos or it didn’t happen’ and we all play our part in it. Perhaps you bought amazing front-row tickets to a favourite singer’s concert but when she approached your corner of the stage, you automatically erected an iPhone barrier between you. Perhaps you’ve rushed to grab the camera and record one of your child’s ‘firsts’ and accidentally missed the actual event. Perhaps you simply let those damn delicious pancakes go cold because you wanted to take a picture of how pretty they looked.
I know I certainly have.
And of course those individual moments are utterly harmless. But the sum of their parts is a life governed by an obsession with broadcasting achievements for external validation. Our efforts to record have stopped being about personal pleasure or posterity and instead they’re driven by a desire for constant positive feedback from those around us.
I think it is worth taking pause to consider how automated our picture-taking response is and actively working to make it more purposeful. Let’s make our photo-taking a deliberate action. A thoughtful choice to file away a special moment for the purpose of recording our personal history. A conscious decision rather than a habitual tap, tap, tapping of the capture button on our screens.
A heightened awareness of how snap-happy our society has become might just help us reassess the way we prioritise actions. Because there is something seriously sick going on when a group of adults mindlessly allow a baby animal to die in the pursuit of a cool pic to post on Instagram.