Horror and Selfies

Dark Tourism is a trend that has become incredibly popular in recent years.  That is, going to sites of mass murder and horror. While many (I would say most) are there to educate themselves, a significant number of people go to gape. Dr. Phillip Stone refers to this as the “commercialization of death”.[1]

To me, nothing displays this more than the modern selfie. Last year’s NCPH conference featured a presentation by Jennifer Evans, Megan Lundigren and Erica Fagan, which talked about the way the Holocaust is being remembered through digital media. What stood out most to me was the idea that the selfie had become a significant means of interacting with Holocaust history.[2]

Of course, this isn’t unique to the Holocaust. People go to sites of horror all over the world and photograph themselves. Most recently, tourists gather at the Bataclan in Paris for photographs. On my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I was shocked to see a man having his photo taken with a large smile as he held the barbed wired fence. Ground Zero, the Cambodian killing fields…all of these sites of horror have become a place where dark tourists come to photograph themselves.

In 2014, Breanna Mitchell became known as “Auschwitz selfie girl” when this photo of her there went viral and people were outraged.

What does it all mean or say about our society? Is it simply a homage to a horrific past? Is it a means of saying we’re important? The problem for me, is that suddenly the past becomes about us. The selfie shows how disconnected we are from our history.  While I see where people are coming from when they explain why they’ve taken a photograph of themselves at a horrific site- something still doesn’t jive for me. It’s a way of saying, “Look at me! I was here where people died.” It is as though the photograph is a means of convincing people you remember an event rather than actually remembering and learning from it.

In an age where we are so engaged with our online presence and ourselves would it be so bad to step back and just respect history? To try harder to understand it and not try to prove that we do? What are your thoughts readers? Should places like Auschwitz revisit their photography policies altogether?   Do you have a problem with the trend? Let me know in the comments below if you can.


Peace, love and history.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/oct/31/dark-tourism-murder-sites-disaster-zones

[2] Jennifer Evans, Megan Lundigren and Erica Fagan. “Selfies, Tweets and Likes: Social Media and its Role in Historical Memory.” Session at the National Conference on Public History, 2015. (I apologize if this citation isn’t full. No copyright infringements intended!)


4 thoughts on “Horror and Selfies

  1. Hey Gab! I felt very uncomfortable with people taking smiling selfies in Auschwitz-Birkenau when I was there last May. I took pictures of things, but I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of myself smiling, because I was having such a profoundly introspective experience and was deeply saddened while there. I think I asked someone to take a photo of me outside the camp, but I know I wasn’t smiling. I just felt incredibly uncomfortable- which I think was very important in my learning process.

  2. Hi Gabrielle, Interesting post! I remember thinking about this visiting Dachau in 2007…before the ‘selfie’ was so ubiquitous. Do you know if these sites offer guidance on ‘appropriate photography’? Or is there a preamble to the tours which addresses engaging with the site in a respectful way?

    1. Hi Hayley;
      Thanks for reading! When I went to Auschwitz there was no preamble about appropriate photography but there are parts where you are not allowed to take photographs such as the room of human hair (of course, some people ignore that unfortunately).
      There website says this:
      “Taking pictures on the grounds of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim for own purposes, without use of a flash and stands, is allowed for exceptions of hall with the hair of Victims (block nr 4) and the basements of Block 11. Material may be used only in undertakings and projects that do not impugn or violate the good name of the Victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Photography and filming on the Museum grounds for commercial purposes require prior approval by the Museum.”

      I wonder if further actions like the ones you asked about will be taken in the future.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

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