Dying for a photo: The ascent of the killfie

by Gareth Eyres / 02 August, 2018

A tourist takes a selfie in front of the living lava lake in the crater of Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia. Photo / Getty Images

The selfie has become ubiquitous in modern life, but the desire to document dangerous moments for social media fame is also costing people their lives. Gareth Eyres looks at what causes people to risk turning their selfie into a killfie.

A few weeks out and it’s not yet clear what happened to the three ever-so-wonderful, happy 30-year-olds on the day they died.

It should become clear when the British Columbia police analyse the footage on their cameras.

The day they died sure was a lovely day, weather-wise. Great for getting in the outdoors, shoot some video, take some selfies, make the viewers at home wish just that little bit that they were there with these people, doing that cool stuff, in that spectacular place.

Call me cynical, but what happened here should sound out a warning.

The taking of selfies can be dangerous.

High on Life YouTube trio's tragedy

Megan Scraper, Ryker Gamble and Alexey Lyakh were three Canadian social media celebrities. Lyakh and Gamble were founding members of the High on Life YouTube channel.

Megan “Mindy” Scraper was Lyakh’s partner. The three were filming at Shannon Falls near Squamish in BC.

The High on Life back catalogue shows the two guys sliding down water chutes then jumping off waterfalls on a steep river close to their hometown.

The videos are tagged "Extreme Danger! Recent Death at this location (March 27th, 2016): ATTENTION EVERYONE WATCHING THIS VIDEO: Our team has been trained and involved in gymnastics, diving, stunts, and the extreme sports community for over a decade.”

The ubiquitous GoPro camera on a selfie stick (in this case literally a real stick!) is in hand as the men fall into the deep pool below. The drop looks to be about 20 metres.

So what happened at Shannon Falls? Shannon is a pool-drop waterfall, with its overall height of 335 metres making it the third-highest waterfall in BC.

It appears the three were swimming in a pool about one-third of the way up. The pool is accessible by a steep track with accompanying fixed ropes. Accurate reports are currently sketchy, but it seems Scraper slipped on the wet rock close to the edge of the pool’s egress.

Ryker Gamble, Megan Scraper and Alexey Lyakh died while filming at Shannon Falls in British Columbia. Photo / GoFundMe

She was then swept down a small chute and over the lip of the fall. She fell 33 metres into the pool with its rocky shallow bottom below. Some reports say the two guys jumped over the fall, in the vain hope of rescuing her.

That’s a 33-metre voluntary jump into a shallow pool.

Were their cameras rolling? Was Scraper posing on the edge to get the ultimate shot, like she had done on many previous High on Life videos?

The British Columbia police currently aren’t saying. That will be the coroner’s job.

Sunset selfie suspected in couple's Portugal death

It appears the camera was rolling for British-Australian couple Michael Kearns, 33, of Perth and his partner Louise Benson, 37, when they fell 30 metres off a sea wall in the seaside town of Ericeira in Portugal.

A fisherman on the beach found their bodies early in the morning. The fisherman thought the couple were asleep, but realised when he got closer he was wrong.

It was a “scene of horror” he said, their bodies ”unrecognisable”

Their phone was found on the edge of the wall 30 metres above. Local police state it was likely they were taking a selfie of the view, perhaps at sunset, and fell to their deaths.

So which country has the most selfie caused deaths in the world?

Of a random sample around my local town, many replied "China” – the logic being there's lots of people and lots of phones. Wrong.

The answer is India.

India tops selfie-death league table

In fact, it’s India by far - over 60 per cent of selfie deaths are from India and Pakistan.

It appears Indians really like trains, and love getting up close to them, having their picture taken either with them, on top of them, or in one lunatic's case, racing them whilst running up the track in front of the train (and it was an Express).

I suppose many of you have noticed the warnings on the wing mirrors of some cars. It reads, “Objects in the mirror are closer than what they seem”. Well, the same works for most phones, with their lovely wide-angle lenses.

Sadly it appears a lot of Indian selfie-takers haven’t quite got the hang of this concept yet.  Along with trains, boats and water are high on the killfie (as selfies with a death involved are now being labelled) list also.

One boat with 10 young passengers on board flipped when they tried to take a mass selfie. Seven drowned.

Many Indians die each year taking close-up pictures of them being dunked in monsoonal storm surge waves. 

You know when a university group releases a research paper that a subject matter is becoming important.

The paper “Me, Myself and my Killfie" was authored by students at Carnegie Mellon University, USA.

Japan Rail warns commuters against taking selfies on platforms.

The report is incredibly detailed in its reportage. Camera angles, heights, GPS locations are all taken into consideration.

In the “discussion" section of the study, there is a final sentence that reads: “We believe that the study can inspire and provide footprints for technologies which can stop users from clicking dangerous selfies, and thus preventing more of such casualties.”

I’m not totally convinced about that. There’s human nature to take into consideration, with its seemingly bursting desire to document and share every part of life from meals to machines, from adventures to rock concerts. The cell phone and its camera are omni.

In the 12 months leading up to May 2016 over 24 billion selfies were uploaded to Google photos. And that’s just one sharing site.

Consider how many other social media sites there are and that’s an awful lot of sharing.

Killfie list gets longer

So, what’s that important that you die trying to take a picture of yourself?

Here are some of the incidents I unearthed while researching the topic.

USA, October 2011: Three teenagers (two sisters and a friend) were killed by a train while posing for a selfie, which is just visible in the final picture they posted to Facebook along with the caption: "Standing right by a train ahaha this is awesome!!!!"

August 2014: A 21-year-old man was drinking with friends and took a selfie to post on Facebook. He posed with a gun pointed at his face. The man accidentally shot himself and he was declared dead at the scene.

January 2015: Two young men died in the Ural Mountains of Russia after they pulled the pin from a live hand grenade to take a selfie. The phone with the picture remained as evidence of the circumstance of their deaths.

And, drastically, there’s an image from Instagram. It’s of a 32-year-old woman from North Carolina who is driving her car at the time the photo is taken. The image has had the time to be converted to black and white and posted, along with its attendant note (remember, she’s driving at the time).

The note said, "I’m so happy to be driving along listening to 'Happy;" (by Pharrell Williams).

Whilst the Instagram was being uploaded her car crashed into a rubbish truck. She died at the scene.

Let’s look at another cascading body of water – this time right here in New Zealand.

New Zealand's extreme elements a magnet for thrill-seekers

American extreme kayaker Rush Sturges has been paddling kayaks since he was two years old. His parents owned the Otter Bar Kayaking School in northern California.

Before he was old enough to legally drink he was being paid by outdoor gear manufacturers and corporate sponsors to document his life “living the dream”.

He is a highly trained, hugely skilled professional and he surrounds himself with like-minded top end competent paddlers to share his expeditions and adventures.

He’s good at what he does and makes a living out of it.

As local New Zealand kayaking guru Mick Hopkinson states, “if you’re going out to do something challenging, even an easy day run - first look to your team. Do they have the skill sets to effect a rescue if things go wrong?”

Sturges came to New Zealand in February 2014 and hooked up with local kayak star Ben Brown. Together they kayaked a number of New Zealand’s hard runs. The trip is documented on YouTube entitled “GoPro: Kayak New Zealand.”

At one point on their trip, they visit Aratiatia Rapids, downstream from Huka Falls just outside of Taupo.

In Sturges's words: “I’ve never been to anywhere like Aratiatia before. They run the river completely dry (below the powerhouse) so you can see the rapid with nothing in it and it looks…. (The usually cool as a cucumber customer stares at the jumble of rocks in front of him and looks intimidated here) - it looks terrifying.”

A loud siren peals out over the valley and the dam gates open. The once dry riverbed fills quickly until it is a raging Class 5/6 rapid. It’s a burly piece of whitewater and people gather at well-documented release times to watch the spectacle of the water roaring down the narrow steep canyon. On the clip, you can see the skill involved as Ben and Rush launch their kayaks and pick their lines through a rapid that had been unchallenged by kayakers until 1998.

Kayaking the Aratiatia rapids "looks terrifying" - but Ben Brown does it anyway. Photo / screenshot

So what made four friends, clad in just swimsuits, go and stand on a rock in the middle of the canyon and wait for the water to rise on a hot Waitangi day in 2017?

Two German tourists were on an observation platform close to where the swimmers were. They heard the 5-minute warning siren. It is presumed the group standing down in the boulders below did also.

The gates opened and the river started to rise. The tourists looked down into the canyon and saw the four people standing on a rock above a pool as the river rose around them.

They were holding selfie sticks.

When the foaming whitewater rushed around their ankles the four girls took turns trying to jump to a larger rock on the shore. Here a young man was waiting, ready to assist. Things didn’t go to plan. In the end three of the group were washed away.

Sadly, one of the girls, Auckland University student Rachael Louise De Jong was found by kayakers in a pool below the rapids. She had drowned in the turbulent water.

These young people must have known what they were getting into.

I’ve been to Aratiatia a number of times. The force of the water is awe-inspiring. There are 1200 well documented and posted water releases per year.

The river is well fenced off and it would be incredible to think that a person that was in the riverbed at the time of release was there by mistake.

Taupo Mayor David Trewavas said Mercury Energy works closely with the council to provide safety for their hydro sites along the river. “There are signs up, and sirens going off so it’s a case of what else can you do?” he said.

One can only think they were there with their selfie sticks to…well what is it? Document their awesome experience in the New Zealand wild? Make their social media followers envious of the life they’re living? Or just something so simple as the sheer act of having fun and showing it to their cyber friends.

None of this makes up for the fact a young promising life was lost.

Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!

Noun: narcissism

Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one's physical appearance.

British writer Will Storr appears to understand the phenomenon well.

So much so he’s written a book about it.

The book, titled “Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us” tells us it’s not self-indulgent tools such as social media and smartphones that have made us so.

Storr argues Western Culture has always been this way, and over time we have built up conditions that allow us to overstate our roles in life and our own self-importance.

Looking back, I suppose that the Greek temples, the pyramids and the self-commissioned statues are examples of such.

Selfies are just so gratuitous in their speed of delivery. Out goes the pic, in comes the likes. Instant karma.

It’s this lightning-fast distribution of the “hey look at me, I’m fabulous - look at what I’m doing right now!” - and the fact that people can make a living driving this behaviour that can cause serious social problems.

The model of creating a perfect self, living in a perfect world and having a mass following feeding on that dream is problematic.

Followers in lesser situations can feel dispossessed - “Why am I not like Kylie?”, and it’s leading to increasing levels of depression and in some cases, suicide. 

In the USA there is even discussion about a phenomenon known as collective narcissism, where groups of individuals show excessively high regard for themselves.

From a nationwide standpoint that doesn’t bear thinking about.

How to not give a f*ck

In a world gone bonkers over sharing, one can only say thank goodness for Mark Manson.

The New York-based blogger, author and entrepreneur specializes in writing personal development advice that (in his own words) doesn’t suck.

He is the author of the hugely successful book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. The book and its counter-narcissistic culture values is a hit both in the author's own country and here in New Zealand. It’s just been voted #4 on the Whitcoulls' top 100 of Kiwi favourites.  It’s a good read.

Manson in his self-deprecating way is saying: stop this "I need a new car, I need a new phone, Tarquin has to go to the best preschool" shit RIGHT NOW if you want to really be genuinely happy.

It’s the belief of self-entitlement that is a driver to perceived success.

Manson again: "People who feel entitled view every occurrence in their life as either an affirmation of or a threat to, their own greatness."

And: “People that feel entitled delude themselves into whatever feeds their sense of superiority".

He appeals to his audience (many of whom are likely to be mortgage-stretched, job-pressured worker drones just struggling to get ahead) to take stock, get a real life, forget the toned, tan bimbos that are polluting the social media feeds, and get on with what matters.

What Manson writes about resonates common sense. He appeals to his readers to embrace the reality in which they are in, not someone else’s vapid lifestyle of excess.

Cultivate real friends, not Facebook ones. Practise sharing, as in food, not as in passing on selfie clips. Live a life that is here and now, not a vicarious one.

The dehumanising world of the selfie?

Just as we go to press the selfie world gets sinister.

Three men were riding a motorcycle in Rajasthan, India. They were hit by a school bus going in the opposite direction. One of the men was killed instantly, but as the other two lay seriously injured and bleeding on the road, a group of bystanders gathered and started taking selfies at the scene.

No help was given to the injured. One shot from Twitter shows a man looking cool into his camera while bodies lay sprawled below.

The two injured subsequently died.

One follower tweeted “The person in the selfie should be punished to set an example. I don’t understand what is cool about clicking a selfie with a bleeding dying man??!”

I’m sure many more of us don’t understand either.

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