Auschwitz selfies

18 Mar

Image: Still from a short film, Selfies at Auschwitz (the Yolocaust problem)

The phenomenon of the Auschwitz Selfie became a cause célèbre in 2014 when a teenager’s picture of herself against a backdrop of the death camp triggered widespread condemnation. The debate re-emerged this week, in the run up to the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21st March. As well as calling “on all world states and organizations to participate in a program of action to combat racism and racial discrimination”, the day is observed across the world “to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences. It also encourages people to remember their obligation and determination to combat racial discrimination”.

On Holocaust Memorial Day in January, artist Shahak Shapira, produced a website challenging the fashion for Holocaust selfies. And in a thoughtful and angry New Statesman article earlier this week (“Smile for the Auschwitz Selfie”, 13th March 2017), Tanya Gold argued that, if the rise in racism and fascism and the fate of refugees are any yardstick of success, “attempts to memorialise the Holocaust have failed and may even be counterproductive”. She cited the cynicism of Home Secretary Amber Rudd in tweeting a picture of herself writing “We must never forget” in a Holocaust remembrance book just two weeks before announcing that the Dubs Amendment, to allow in 3,000 refugee children, was to be discontinued.

That a racist Home Secretary of a racist government behaves cynically, dishonestly and cold-heartedly is hardly worth saying. There’s also a bigger discussion to be had about the burden of responsibility Gold places on memorial sites – or memorialisation in general – to undermine the racism that is woven through our political system.

What interests me, though, is how difficult it seems for ordinary individuals to resist the pull of the commodification of Auschwitz, which David Rosenberg explored in his blog. However compelling the marketing, I’m sure that most people who visit Auschwitz, do so with at least a degree of anti-racist and anti-fascist intent and there are many, too, who go on group educational visits, who are already anti-fascist activists. I’m sure that, however little or much they know of the history, visitors approach that site aiming to respect the people who suffered and died there. So I can understand that they might want to take photos to convey or bring home a visual reminder of the camp that has come to represent such incomprehensible inhumanity. What intrigues me, though, is what motivates people to take selfies there.

This is not the beach at Sorrento or the Duomo in Florence (a wonderful city which, incidentally, has been made utterly unbearable by the forest of selfie sticks). This is not even “just” a graveyard. It is not an artefact. Although there is a museum within it, it is not a museum. And it’s not very old. It is a real place where more than a million real people were eliminated like rats, and whose real relatives are still mourning and trying to come to terms with the enormity and cruelty of their fate. So, aside from horror junkies, and teenagers, who are caught up in selfie culture and may not get the subtle difference between a Nazi death camp and a tourist destination like the London Dungeon, what are people trying to show their friends when they post a picture of themselves there? What responses do they expect when they upload images of “me at Auschwitz” on social media? Likes? Sad emojis? Angry emojis? Is it to demonstrate how brave they are to face the demons of this place? Is it a misplaced attempt to personalise the story of what happened here? Or is it just an electronic version of “Kilroy woz here”?

I genuinely don’t know any better than anyone else what the correct manners are for visitors to the sites of former concentration and death camps. Auschwitz is not an accessible place that a tourist could casually wander into without a grain of understanding, so the fact that so many people do want to visit it is a good thing. But behaving as they would at any other tourist destination once they’ve passed through its the iconic gates seems not only to trivialise whatever meaning we can derive from such a visit, but to be at best disrespectful of the people who suffered and died there, and, at worst, to add to the objectification, and even further dehumanisation, of the victims.

I’ve written this in the hope that it will add something to and encourage debate about memorialisation, what impact it can (and can’t) have and how we derive from our history the strength and confidence to be effective antiracists and antifascists.




One Response to “Auschwitz selfies”

  1. Ruth Lukom March 19, 2017 at 10:15 pm #

    Is it a form of illiteracy in the sense that a lot of people who communicate on digital devices and use emojis (don’t get me started on emojis) are losing the ability to articulate ideas and complex emotions. A normal selfie says ‘Hey look what I’ve have experienced’ The Auschwitz selfie says ‘This is what I’ve experienced and…..and…?? …..
    But I also think they feel the social media pressure to ‘comment’ on everything and to be seen to comment the right way.
    ‘Chuck Berry – a legend – RIP’
    ‘Auschwitz – we must never forget’

    I’m being kind. Its utterly classless. Trump would do it.

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