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Why Photobombs Are Better Than Selfies

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

I have no problem with selfies.

But the overwhelming cultural fascination with this form — pro and con — has finally made it necessary to speak out on behalf of a different digital-age photography phenomenon. The time has come to fully appreciate the consistent excellence of photobombing.

RELATED: 7 Great Photobombs and Their Subversive Delight

Sure, photobombs get attention — they go viral; they inspire lists; people submit their favorites to meme-collection sites. And “photobomb” has been dutifully entered into the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, as a verb, meaning to “[s]poil a photograph of (a person or thing) by unexpectedly appearing in the camera’s field of view as the picture is taken, typically as a prank or practical joke.”

But still. “Selfie” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word of the Year” in 2013. The practice has continued to inspire exhaustive histories, earnest art criticism, outrage over the newest inappropriate selfie-in-the-news, and endless fake-contrarian “defense of selfies” exercises.

Obviously selfies need no “defense.” They are the belle of the Web visual ball, the loved-and-condemned center of digital-image conversation.

Again, that’s fine. There is no reason to bury the selfie. But there is every reason to praise the photobomb.  

The opposite of “spoiled”
I have no problem with Kevin Spacey.

As an actor he seems, you know, just fine. But as a photobomber, Spacey plays a pivotal role in my appreciation of the genre.

One day last year, a woman named Christina Sander was visiting Boston, and paused to have a friend take her picture in front of a monument. At that moment, Spacey was jogging through Boston Common, and noticed her. “This is a photobomb!” he shouted, she later recounted, and theatrically inserted himself into the frame.

Then he jogged away. Sander, a Spacey fan, was clearly thrilled.

This incident sums up everything that is magical about the photobomb.

Specifically, the Spaceybomb reveals that — despite the definitions offered by the OED Online or Wikipedia — do not “spoil” photographs. 

To the contrary, a good one converts a totally mundane image into a hilarious, delightful, genuinely special one. That is: They create a photograph.

Consider the visual results of the Kevin Spacey episode. For that matter, consider the picture Wikipedia uses as an archetypal photobomb:

The non-photobombed versions of these images would be of interest to almost nobody. Photobombing punctures workaday visuals — and transforms them for the better.

On some level, all selfies are the same: Only the context changes. But every successful photobomb is inherently surprising, and thus unique.

Pranks for the memories
I have no problem with videobombing.

The video version of photobombing has its merits. But it’s the still-image photobomb, specifically, that I want to celebrate.

The name dates to at least 2008, but lighthearted pranksters have butted into others’ Kodak moments since at least the era when the phrase “Kodak moment” actually meant something. Know Your Meme cites the Beatles photobombing one another, as well as that rainbow-colored-fright-wig guy whom those of you old enough to have experienced the 1970s might recall.

This 19th century image, meanwhile, via Retronaut, pops up often as an example of “old school photobombing.” If you don’t see it, check the corners of the photograph.

Still, it’s in the digital age that the form has really taken hold. The increase in the sheer number of digital cameras — and the ease with which we can make more such images than we’ll ever have time to review — means that “spoiling” any single shot is essentially a victimless crime. In the vast majority of scenarios, if a guy in a banana suit intrudes in one frame, you can easily create a dozen more in less than a minute. Yet the thrill of the bomb remains.

Meanwhile, the one photo with banana-suit guy remains just as effective as a subversive — and funny — critique of our obsession with hyper-documentation. 

The key is that photobombing has a unique ability to destabilize a stage-managed image — whether that image was orchestrated by a celebrity PR team or your dad.

Nobody knows the intricacies of the managed image better than celebrities, and it’s significant that famous people love to photobomb one another. In doing so, they temporarily become more relatable: Turns out they are capable of recognizing and undermining the very image culture they serve.

That’s why the Spaceybomb is so fascinating — an image-culture veteran humorously pranking a typical-citizen bit of stagecraft. Photobombing celebs: They are Just Like Us!

Actually: We have become more like them. From exposure to endless self-portraits to starring in our own GoPro adventures, we all understand that the relationship between photography and reality is fraught at best. For a brilliant exploration of that idea, you could read Errol Morris’ fantastic book Believing Is Seeing.

Or just look at a bunch of photobombs: They’re as effective at exposing, and playfully undermining, the artifice of image-making as any critic. They bring everyone — Kevin Spacey, your dad — to the same level, relatable, spontaneous, and human.

Plus they’re usually funny. And that’s why, as a category of image, the photobomb is sublime. Get over your selfie: It’s time we gave the photobomb its due. 

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.