Ever since news first broke of the Rob Ford drug scandal over a year ago, one thing has remained constant with the mayor: the mob of smartphone-wielding selfie-seekers surrounding him wherever he goes.
And while Mr. Ford has been known to duck the media’s cameras, the opposite is true when it comes to the average citizen with a cameraphone – Friday’s FordFest in Scarborough being a case in point.
As a result, on any given day, a search on Instagram or Twitter turns up hundreds of images of the mayor – at sporting events, in nightclubs, or at street festivals – with his arm around a smiling stranger, mugging for the camera in a rumpled shirt and tie.
For the most part, the mayor seems to love the attention, grinning for camera after camera – and some of those asking for his picture appear to love him back, too. “I like his personality,” said Mary (who declined to give her last name), after taking a selfie with the mayor at Nathan Phillips Square earlier this week. “I think he’s going to win.”
But as news has become more and more troubling – from drug allegations to police surveillance and finally, rehab – a debate arose over the ethics of the “Rob Ford selfie.”
A column titled “The Selfish Selfie” in the New York Times magazine in April wrestled with the question of whether those who sought selfies with the mayor were, in fact, exploiting him.
Meanwhile, writer Denis McGrath meditated on whether he’d “enabled” the mayor in a Facebook post titled “35 surprising things about a selfie with Rob Ford.”
“I wish I’d been able to say ‘shame on you’ to him, but something human stopped me,” he wrote of his own selfie experience.
“I have never seen someone who is so alone surrounded by so many people,” he wrote.
The Globe spoke to five people who took “Rob Ford selfies” about their experiences:
Interviews have been edited and condensed
Blair Amyotte, 30, Ottawa
Mr. Amyotte was at a Blue Jays game in April when friends noticed Mayor Ford sitting in their row. Afterwards, his friend said “that may be the most famous person I’ve ever met.”
You’re from Ottawa. Why did you want a selfie with Toronto’s mayor?
I think it was, for lack of a better term, a tourist attraction. Obviously, I followed the story. I got sucked in and read the whole 400-page police report [about the investigation involving Mayor Ford and alleged drug dealer Alessandro Lisi] … It’s like a car wreck you can’t turn away from.
How did people react to him?
When he stood up, he was getting everything from swear words thrown at him, to people chanting “four more years.” He was very gracious. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure would be like – brought on, obviously, by himself.
Could taking a selfie be viewed as supporting him?
Yeah, that’s what it would come across as to outsiders.
Saying it out loud definitely makes me rethink the whole thing. But I think the difference for me is knowing I’m not a citizen of Toronto. Had I been a citizen of Toronto, I wouldn’t have done it.
Were the people around him supporting or mocking him?
I think for him, whether he knows people are mocking him or not is irrelevant to him. I think he lives in his own little world where if people are talking about him, whether it’s good or bad, he will use to get to his ultimate goal – which is to stay in his position.
Fadi Dawood, 21, Hamilton
Mr. Dawood was at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Toronto the morning after a dishevelled-looking mayor was caught on video slurring his speech and reportedly letting out a string of expletives before getting into a taxi.
How did you approach the mayor?
We chased him for a while on the street, and then I just went in and said “Robbie, selfie?” He just said “yeah.”
Your tweet described both the mayor and the selfie as “awesome”
I thought he did nothing wrong. What he did in his personal life, it’s personal. But now, it’s gotten out of control. I used to respect him and give him some leeway, but after the recent stuff [the second drug video, and tape of him using offensive language], I was disappointed. He took it over the edge.
Do you agree that asking for selfies is equivalent to expressing support?
I agree. If you really hate the guy, you’re not going to ask for a photo. I didn’t hate him. I kind of liked his ideas. He’s not a bad politician.
Coralyn Schell, 19, New Westminster, B.C.
Ms. Schell was at The Foggy Dew, a popular student bar in a Vancouver suburb, in late January, when she spotted him on the dance floor.
What was Mayor Ford’s reaction like to the crowd?
He totally wanted to have his picture taken. Instead of telling people to stop or hiding himself, he was like, “Come here, let’s get a picture.” He had a huge grin on his face. He was loving it.
Are you a supporter of Mr. Ford’s?
I’m not a supporter. I think he’s a bit of a goof. It was hilarious – it was more of a funny fact that I saw him at the Foggy Dew. You don’t see any other mayors going into the Foggy Dew.
If it had been Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, would you have wanted his photo?
No. If I took a picture and put it up on Facebook or Instagram, people would be like, “who’s that old guy?”
Matthew Wong, 32, Toronto
Mr. Wong has taken not one, but two photos with Mayor Ford. The first was at a street festival in July of last year. After losing 60 pounds, he arranged for a second. His composite photo, titled “Rob Ford for scale” and posted to Reddit, went viral, receiving over 1.4 million page views.
What’s the response been like?
It’s been kind of mind-boggling. I was out for dinner and a couple strangers came up to compliment me and say “Hi, I saw you on the internet.” To be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to carry on longer than a week. Fame is fleeting – especially internet fame.
Does the experience make you more sympathetic to the mayor?
As an individual, a little, yeah.
Were you a supporter in 2010?
Would you vote for him in the next election?
What did you take away from this experience?
That I need a haircut, and I also need to shave more.
Delan Perera, 22, Toronto
Mr. Perera helped organize a cricket event the mayor attended in April.
You said you see the mayor every year for this event. Why did you only want a photo this year?
My cousins overseas [in Sri Lanka] knew about him, so I told them I’d take it for them. All my family friends are talking about Rob Ford.
Are you a supporter of the mayor?
Personally, I don’t think I am a supporter, but it’ll depend at the end of the day on whether he makes good statements for my family, for kids, and the future.
Does the meeting make you more willing to support him?
For me, it doesn’t change anything. It’s what he stands for and what he does for the city, not what he does for my Instagram profile.