Auschwitz selfies and online souvenirs

The tweet shows a well-framed photo in the middle of a street. It is clear that the buildings behind the picture were placed into the right perspective.

What could be more damning to the world than a narcissistic self-portrait in a genocide-prone area? Even worse, the accompanying emoticon is a blushing, smug smiley face. What did the girl think? Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Selfie v solemnity

This story seems to me to highlight a total confusion between the two cultural codes.

1) The way you should represent yourself when taking a selfie. This is usually done through humour, which is then shared on social media.

2) The appropriate displays of respect and the appropriate behaviour codes when visiting a memorial or tourist site that has been marked with a tragic event in recent history.

This young teenager appears to have understood the first code but not the full implications.

Tragic destinations

Death tourism, or travel to tragic places is an unusual form of vacationing.

It is acceptable to take silly selfies in the Colosseum. Paul Collins, CC BY-NC-SA

Tourism is generally regarded as a fun activity, whether it’s hedonistic or adventurous, restorative, educational, etc. Travelling to an overseas destination is usually a significant investment for travellers. You must at least wish that you go to your chosen destinations.

It is perfectly acceptable to sneer at the camera or make jokes around the Roman Colosseum, which was a cruel death district in ancient times. Distance has softened the blow and we are no longer liable for the actions of a civilisation that seems alien.

Death tourism is a different thing. It’s not the same as visiting places from recent history, especially when there are still survivors and relatives around. They are similar to modern versions of religious pilgrimages, and we believe that they encourage introspection on the crimes committed by humanity. These are sacred places.

Enjoying tourism

Death tourism is a form of travel that takes the visitor to morbid zones, but still brings a certain pleasure. What sort of pleasure can one find at Auschwitz? You could indulge in a taboo sense of morbid curiosity.

The memorial site and museum, which opened in 1947, exist only to satisfy certain pleasures: the noble quest for knowledge, understanding and to pay respect to those who have died.

Whoever forgets the past is condemned to repeat it. Visit this site and you are committing to act so that such crimes never happen again. This is a place of ethics that asks you to grieve, learn and reflect.

The Auschwitz website warns that “visitors” should act with appropriate solemnity, respect and dignity while on the site. However, it does not specify exactly how visitors should behave.

The outrage over a girl taking a selfie is a result of our current culture, which also carries the connotations that it’s a self-serving PR stunt and a culture of wannabe celebrities. It’s also in poor taste.

Weird Al Yankovic, an American parody artist, released a song last week called Tacky, which included the line that someone with bad taste “would live-tweet funerals, and take selfies with deceased”.

Smile in a photo at Auschwitz implies a total disregard for appropriate solemnity.

Weird Al Yankovic Tacky

Susan Sontag, in her brilliant 1977 text on Photography, written decades before digital selfies were invented, suggests that taking photographs is a way to both certify and also refuse an experience. “By limiting experience to the search for the photogenic… by converting an experience into an image or souvenir.”

The act of collecting a photograph as a souvenir – which is derived from the word “memory” – can be seen as an extremely personal one, as it allows you to turn a memory into a tangible object that can be cherished and returned to.

This incident is not as egregious as it may appear at first. Perhaps this teenager uploaded the photo to reflect on himself.

We could consider it a way to ensure that she does not forget what she has experienced.

Twitter, Instagram, Flickr etc. have become modern photo albums for many people. Breanna Mitchell, too, is probably thinking about how to correct the personal photo taking that has led to the accumulation of “online souvenirs”.

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