Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
March 30, 2016

On the Selfie with the EgyptAir Hijacker: We are Hostages to the Sphere

Cyprus hijacker Seif Eldin Mustafa with a man identified as Ben Innes. Photograph: Sky News

I was actually flying yesterday (I kid you not) when people starting pinging me about the guy who took the portrait with the hijacker.

Scanning through Twitter at 20,000 feet, this existential offering by Mark Gongloff at Bloomberg struck for being that “out there” — but on second thought, maybe not.

It would take a team of sociologists to really explain how we tipped. In the brew, though, is:

status as the opiate of the masses;

the ascendency of PR;

the glorification of wealth, fame, youth and whatever’s new;

the (largely unspoken) ubiquity of cosmetic surgery, especially among actors, TV talking heads and public figures we see on screen all the time;

the denial of death;

… and, of course, social media as a vanity mirror part-in-parcel with being one’s own brand.

With all that, we (bound to the social grid, at least) don’t live unselfconsciously anymore. We exist for the opportunity to perform.

So how does that help us understand yesterday’s spectacle, and the selfie that has both enshrined and besmirched Ben Ennis’s personal brand forever?

It seems the now-natural instinct, and, in Ennis’s case, an unavoidable one, was to grasp the most epic opportunity he’d ever have to star as himself. You couldn’t find better research data on social immortality addiction than:

I figured if his bomb was real I’d nothing lose anyway, so took a chance to get a closer look at it. 

I got one of the cabin crew to translate for me and asked him if I could do a selfie with him. He just shrugged OK so I stood by him and smiled for the camera while a stewardess did the snap. It has to be the best selfie ever.

…An aside, by the way, is whether the photo is a selfie or not. (This backstory at The Sun explains the engagement of the flight attendant — an act also completely relevant to the discussion.) Befitting the points above, though, this Gongloff snark is also a biting riff on  spiritual duality and today’s virtual narcissism:

Still though, let’s not make the same mistake about the photograph as nearly everybody else. If the hive wants to make this picture mostly about Ennis, the real headliner is Seif Eldin Mustafa. In comparison, Ben was merely a walk-on. What’s confusing, though, is how the authorities, riven with disparagement, described Mustafa in terms of who and what he wasn’t. He wasn’t a terrorist. He wasn’t a hijacker. It wasn’t even an explosive device.

Quoting an Egyptian ministry official by way of The Mirror:

He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot.

Terrorists are crazy but they aren’t stupid. This guy is.

Well, I’m not so sure.

Delusional or not, what they completely missed was Mustafa’s social agency. Quick to write him off as a loose screw, the man knew exactly what he was doing.  the root of “acting out” is acting. And in the realm of attention seeking (as opposed to morality or psychopathology), he showed complete intelligence about the public sphere. Then, if we want to talk substance — in contrast to Ennis’s motives, for example — Mustafa’s exploitation of the sphere had nothing to do with the everyday compulsion for social mirroring. He wasn’t performing for followers or clicks or links. He was performing for his ex. And the plan worked perfectly, by the way. Marina Paraschou (see, we know her name!) rushed to the airport, received his four-page letter, even mediated his surrender.

And on top of that … we all got to share.

(photo: Sky News. caption: Cyprus hijacker Seif Eldin Mustafa with a man believed to be Ben Innes.)

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