Wherever Andrew Zimmern goes, someone approaches him, wanting a picture.

“I’ve been asked for selfies in the Kalahari and the Congo, in the remote hill country of Thailand,” said Zimmern. “In Africa, more people have cellphones than electricity. There’s no place I go where it doesn’t happen.”

“Bizarre Foods,” the Twin Cities-produced Travel Channel show that features the globe-spanning, bug-eating Zimmern, airs in about 70 countries. The show’s cable omnipresence and Zimmern’s bald-head-quirky-glasses look mark him for his fans and viewers, whether he’s on a remote landing strip in Alaska or at the Caribou coffee shop near his home in Edina. “The show is more popular in Argentina and Chile and some Asian countries than it is here, so there’s no getting away from it,” Zimmern, 53, said. “One person asks for a selfie and then there’s a line wanting them.”

When his show began airing eight years ago, fans approached the former restaurant chef with paper and pencil, asking for his signature. These days, that’s a rare request.

An autograph used to be the coin of the realm to prove a high-profile encounter. A scrawled name could be quickly obtained and kept forever, a scrap of paper that caught and held a tangible piece of the celebrity’s essence. Now that just about everyone is walking around carrying a camera inside their phone, the selfie has trumped the autograph as the preferred mode of verifying a brush with greatness.

“Getting someone’s signature doesn’t mean nearly as much as photographic evidence of a physical encounter,” said Shayla Thiel-Stern, a University of Minnesota professor who teaches courses on digital media and culture. “A picture with a celebrity increases social capital. We document everything we do, but instead of being written, the documentation is now mobile, visual and social.”

It also conveys a connection that an autograph rarely could. Selfies equalize the person taking the picture with the celebrity whose visage they’ve captured. The frame holds them both, and with a pose and a smile, they can almost look like friends.

My new BFF

When Melissa Saigh was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City, she did a double take when she spotted Sarah Jessica Parker strolling the same street. Saigh gathered her courage and greeted the star, whom she described as “my idol,” then whipped out her phone and asked for a picture.

“She was very nice. She said sure, but we had to do it while we were walking. She was obviously on her way someplace and she didn’t slow down for me,” said Saigh, 32, a mommy blogger who writes at Minnesotababy.blogspot.com. “I texted it to my friends right away, like, here I am with SJP, my new BFF.”

Saigh said it never occurred to her to request an autograph.

“I couldn’t have found a pen in my purse quick enough,” she said. “But I didn’t want her to write down her name, I wanted a picture. I wanted to see her face.”

The celebrity selfie works harder than an autograph for the person who snaps it. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, a click-upload-post-repeat puts the shot before the eyeballs of friends and followers.

“When someone takes a picture with their smartphone, they’re not just holding a camera,” noted Zimmern. “That phone is a publishing and distribution hub. When they get a selfie, they instantaneously share it, a humble-bragging way to say ‘Look who I’m with.’ ”

Cachet vs. cash

A side-by-side photo with a notable may bump up your status or engender envy in your social media set, but the clicks hold no monetary value.

Somewhat surprisingly, old-school autographs have not lost their cachet — or their value — with collectors and serious fans, according to Bob Jones, owner of Autograph World, which sells autographs and memorabilia from what it calls “the biggest names” in entertainment, music and sports.

“If it’s a celebrity that they admire, they value the connection of the autograph,” Jones said. “That person touched that piece of paper. That means something.”

Autographs from historical figures and accompanying memorabilia hold unique value. EBay offers an extensive autograph section; a recent scan found a rare early photograph signed by all of the Three Stooges selling for $13,500 and a 1971 Elvis Presley autograph scrawled on a Las Vegas Hilton menu offered for $2,000. At those prices, the celebrity flotsam often comes guaranteed, certified and authenticated.

Jones said there’s always been a difference between a dedicated collector and someone who happens to bump into a celebrity and snags an autograph.

“The serious collectors are super fans,” he said. “Right now, horror collectors are big; they might want an autograph from everyone in a certain movie or a TV show to complete a collection. They will stand in line at an autograph show or buy them.”

The market for autographs fluctuates with a celebrity’s popularity, but selfies?

“They have no value,” Jones said flatly. “No one cares about them but the person in the picture.”

For Zimmern, posing has become one of the obligations of cable fame.

“I appreciate it more than I can say, that people are excited to see me,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll have a genuine exchange with a stranger and I want to say, ‘It’s been nice to meet you.’ But it’s not enough if they don’t get a picture. It’s like it doesn’t count.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.