The news about journalists rushing to get selfies taken with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his Diwali Milan meeting with the press on Saturday has sent the  media fraternity into an introspection mode. How can reporters be objective if they pose smiling with the object of their scrutiny?

It's clear that many reporters on the Bharatiya Janata Party beat behaved like school children at a free-toffee event as they scrambled to take their pictures with the prime minister , who over the last year has shown a distinct fondness for selfies. But is too much being read into the Diwali selfie scramble?  The same thing would probably have happened at a presser by Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi.  This wasn’t an overwhelming show of allegiance – it was a rush for a slice of immortality. One second of fame that would be preserved for eternity that journalists could show to their future grandchildren as proof of their achievement.

It's a quality that has been associated with photography ever since it was invented.  In the early 1860s, the first Englishwoman photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron,  tried to persuade a beautiful woman to be her model with these words: “Why does not Mrs Smith come to be photographed? I hear she is beautiful. Bid her come and she shall be made immortal.”

Switching the focus

For a century and a half, the ability to confer immortality lay in the hands of the  photographer who held the camera, decided the local and the moment. But the now-ubiquitous cellphone, with a camera both in the back and in the front, has transferred this power to the subject itself.

To understand why reporters flocked around Modi, it’s essential to recognise the narcissistic nature of the selfie. The main task of the selfie-taker is to be the creator of his own public image. Capturing one’s image with a celebrity is to imagine that one is also close to achieving stardom – if one hasn’t gained it already.

There is, of course, a downside.  This year, more people have died in the act of taking selfies than by shark attacks, according to the Daily Telegraph.  In July, Yellowstone National Park issued a warning about taking selfies with bison after five selfie-takers were gored to death.  It's as if the selfie-takers literally lost perspective about their actions.

Of course, the snapshots must also been viewed against the larger backdrop of the media’s relationship with power. In earlier days, prime ministers from Nehru onwards maintained cordial and often personal relationship with journalists.  Indira Gandhi once or twice summoned legendary news photographer Homai Vyarawalla to  her home to take photographs of Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday party and later paid her. Till around 2000, there were many editors and reporters who could phone the prime minister. These attempts at closeness did not mean that their papers killed negative stories on the prime minister. Instead, they allowed journalists to understand the workings of government in a more nuanced way.

New equation

But that closeness and trust in the press has disappeared. Manmohan Singh, for instance, never talked to journalists formally, though he gave interviews while on his foreign journeys and once a year and met women journalists for an annual lunch, just as Atal Bihar Vajpayee who initiated the process had done.

Unlike the US president who is on first name terms with the White House press corps, Modi has maintained a distance with the reporters on the beat. In contrast to the media blitz during his election campaign, he has given only one interview so far.   He has shown a dislike for taking questions and has distanced himself from journalists , some of whom he must know from the days when he was a BJP general secretary. On foreign trips, he has banished reporters from the prime minister’s plane, a long-held tradition that afforded the press access to the chief executive in an informal setting.

When Narendra Modi waded into that babble of reporters on Saturday, he was attempting to create a picture of his own. What he was trying to capture was not the front page but an imagined camaraderie with the press corps. The press willingly acquiesced.