Out damn’d selfie spot

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Depending on your vantage point, it might also cost you $4.4 million. That is, of course, if Councillor Matt Allard and his ilk get their way and you’re interested in taking a postcard-ish shot of The Forks, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Bridge-with-a-Toilet.

Admittedly, details about the project are scarce. (Not scarce enough, however, for the Winnipeg Foundation to verbally commit to contributing $1 million to the project. More on that later.) What we know for sure is first-term Councillor Matt Allard (St. Boniface) is championing a project for his ward, the Tache Promenade, that would see built a look-out tower from which individuals would be encouraged to take photographs of the city’s skyline. Dubbed a Selfie Spot — though for $4.4 million, selfie “red carpet” is surely more appropriate — proponents argue the space will spark economic development and become a prime tourist destination. Isn’t that what they always say about expensive gimmicks?

Nothing is more synonymous with the crippling narcissism of contemporary Western culture than the “selfie.” And here we are encouraging people to take them! Pictures wherein the taker is always the subject; the background at best irrelevant, at worst an ironic hashtag. Selfies are a scourge, supplanting critical observation with unadulterated vanity. Yes, City of Winnipeg, let’s encourage more of this destructive behaviour that actively discourages individuals from taking a critical eye to their surroundings; replace it with smug, self-indulgent filler for personal social media feeds.

LIKE! TWEET! SHARE!

Even if Allard’s so named photo tower has been nicknamed simply to “go viral,” the very fact it could exist is still problematic. Surely, now more than ever, Winnipeg needs its citizens to view the city with critical eyes and from various vantage points. And yet this ill-conceived tourist trap would encourage everyone to see the city from the same perspective and, by extension, deem a particular vantage point the only one worth capturing.

Where’s the selfie spot across the street from the Siloam Mission? Or the one alongside the newly-opened Kenaston Boulevard extension? Instead of the Inn at the Forks and the Hotel Fort Garry, why not encourage people to take pictures of the Sutherland and Yale Hotels? Will those who ascend Allard’s tower even have the opportunity to cast their camera’s gaze in the opposite direction toward the Alexander Docks, where Tina Fontaine’s lifeless body was discovered last summer wrapped in a plastic bag? Doubtful the Winnipeg Foundation would kick in a cool million for that endeavour.

After all, the Winnipeg Foundation requires social service agencies (like women’s shelters and youth drop-in centers) that are actually making a difference in the lives of actual people to jump through veritable hoops to receive a fraction of that kind of cash. Like the United Way and other government and non-government funders, the Winnipeg Foundation typically requires reams of paperwork and demonstrable outcomes before ponying up much-needed funding for civic-minded causes. Except, apparently, when there’s a gimmick to be built and ribbons to be cut, then a million bucks can be breathlessly kicked in, no big deal. In the same parlance as the selfie itself, WTF?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with promoting Winnipeg. (Or, for that matter, shoring up eroding riverbanks.) Why not, though, invite heritage groups and the burgeoning architectural community, activists and academics to contribute to a project that designates various spots throughout the city for folks to snap a pic? Spots, for example, that inform, engage and encourage residents to learn more about their city, warts and all. To see Winnipeg not as a postcard would have you see it, but as it actually is. A selfie spot may be worth $4.4 million, but such pictures would be priceless.

No doubt Councillor Allard means well. He’s too new to City Council and to elected politics to be so jaded. Nevertheless, perhaps the pause the property and planning committee has put on his pet project will give him and the Winnipeg Foundation time to rethink their project’s merits and purpose. After all, at a time when Winnipeggers are finally starting to grapple with the serious, structural racism infecting their city, and when rates of poverty and income inequality have never been higher, surely we need people not to close, contract or narrow them, but to open their eyes, expand their vantage points, and widen the lenses through which they see this once great city.

***

Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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