SALT LAKE CITY — It’s an almost unconscious, involuntary impulse: You go out to eat, you see a friend, you travel somewhere — and you pull out your phone to take a picture or selfie and post it to Facebook or Instagram.
But what happens when the site you’re photographing is one where tragedy has taken place — where people have died, or where horrible atrocities have been committed?
On June 9, the Internet exploded in rage after a Twitter user shared a compilation of other people’s Instagram photos taken in Pripyat, Ukraine, the city destroyed by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster that killed 54. The tweet was captioned “Meanwhile in Chernobyl: Instagram influencers flocking to the site of the disaster,” and featured four photos: A woman posing inside one of the power plant’s control rooms; a man holding a Geiger counter in front of some dilapidated buildings; a slightly smiling woman leaning against a destroyed bus; and a woman wearing a biohazard suit pulled down to show thong underwear.
The tweet was deleted soon after technology writer Taylor Lorenz published a critique in The Atlantic, but not before it quickly went viral and was shared thousands of times, with many users arguing that the photos were disrespectful and just another example of millennial Instagrammers being narcissistic and self-absorbed, focused less on the site’s history and trauma than on getting likes and growing their own personal brand.
It also caught the attention of Craig Mazin, the writer and producer of the recent HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.”
“It’s wonderful that #ChernobylHBO has inspired a wave a tourism to the Zone of Exclusion,” he tweeted. “But yes, I’ve seen the photos going around. If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourself with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed.”
A similar wave of public ire was ignited in 2014, when a teenager tweeted a smiling selfie she had taken at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
But Chernobyl and Auschwitz aren’t just sites of tragedy — they’re also “sites of tourism,” said Marita Sturken, a professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU Steinhardt. “And (taking) photographs is one of the primary activities that tourists participate in. The question is, is it possible to take photos in these contexts that don’t feel disrespectful or totally dissonant or trite?”
The Chernobyl and Auschwitz pictures raise other questions, too. Is there something inherently disrespectful in the act of taking pictures of oneself at a tragic or sacred site? Or is it something about the format of social media platforms themselves that makes the photos seem disrespectful? Or, rather, do photos uploaded to social media serve the critical function of helping us remember and reflect on what happened in a particular place?
In The Atlantic, Lorenz argued that there isn’t anything wrong with posing for pictures at Chernobyl, and most Instagrammers who do are simply trying to say, “I was here.”
But one can say “I was here” in a multitude of ways, some more respectful than others. What is the difference between a photo that commemorates and one that, in Sturken's words, acts as an agent of “crass consumerism?”
The problem with 'selfies'
Our desire to photograph historical and tragic sites is a natural one, said Irina Raicu, the director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Raicu pointed out that anyone can find professional photos of famous sites online. “But there’s something in the act of you taking a picture that makes you remember yourself being there. It’s your own experience that you’re memorializing, not someone else’s,” she said.
Yet it is precisely the emphasis that many social media users place on themselves and their own experiences when visiting tragic sites that has caused mass pushback. The pinnacle of this form, of course, is the selfie.
“The selfie places you in the forefront,” Raicu said. “It’s more about you, and everything else acts as context or background to you.”
Although often framed as a millennial phenomenon (and problem), in reality these types of images have a history tracing back centuries.
For example, in the 16th through 18th centuries, young wealthy British men went on a lengthy travel circuit of Europe called the “Grand Tour.” Many commissioned paintings of themselves in front of famous landmarks, like the Colosseum in Rome, to hang in their estates as proof of their wealth, cosmopolitanism and culture, Nick Trend reported in the Telegraph.
Pompeo Batoni, an Italian portraitist, was a favorite among the Grand Tour travelers because he would paint iconic monuments in the background of portraits for an extra fee, Trend reported. He describes one such portrait: “Colonel the Hon. William Gordon poses with imperial haughtiness, dressed in what appears to be a silk tartan toga with the ruined Colosseum in the background — the personification of 18th-century cultural arrogance.”
A selfie in front of the Colosseum is likely to be interpreted differently than a selfie in front of Auschwitz (even though, as Raicu pointed out, many people died in the Colosseum). But both can come across as arrogant and self-absorbed.
“In a culture measured by consumerism, it is the experience of being seen to have been there that matters. Respect or taste or reverence or a historical understanding of a place does not seem to be a consideration,” Janina Struk, a documentary photographer and author of the 2004 book “Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence,” said in an email.
But some experts, including Sturken of NYU Steinhardt, think selfies have gotten a “bad rap.”
It is possible to “take a selfie that is respectful and somber and appropriate,” even in a place like Chernobyl or Auschwitz, Sturken said. “There’s nothing in the actual form of the (selfie) that makes it seem trivial. It’s more ... the associations we bring to the idea of someone taking a picture of themselves.”
But it also depends on how the photo is framed. “You can go to the Holocaust Memorial (in Washington, D.C.) and you can photograph it” with a tone of “seriousness and engagement with the past,” Sturken said. “But if you take a picture of yourself smiling in some way, that creates a kind of dissonance.”
When posing for and posting photos taken at tragic sites, people need to ask themselves “what kind of person are you for doing this, or who are you encouraging someone else to be?” Raicu said. “What kind of virtues are you demonstrating or not demonstrating?”
Ultimately, photos are “subjective,” and our interpretation of them “really depends on how much we understand of the context and the motivation behind them,” Raicu said.
And once these photos are posted on social media, they become even more “open to misunderstandings,” she added.
'A place of immediate judgment'
The Twitter user whose compilation of other people’s Chernobyl pictures went viral used a caption — “Meanwhile in Chernobyl: Instagram influencers flocking to the site of the disaster” — implying that the Instagrammers had visited the site to exploit it for likes and followers, not to reflect on its significance and the lives of those who died.
But as Lorenz pointed out in The Atlantic, only one out of the four Instagrammers featured in the tweet had enough followers at the time of their post to be considered an “influencer.” And two of the photos featured lengthy, reflective captions, which had been cropped out of the tweet.
Social media “right now is a place of immediate judgment,” Raicu said. “We’re not charitable to each other. We don’t look at a picture and assume the best — we assume the worst and voice our displeasure too.”
Part of this may be due to the nature of the platforms themselves, Sturken said, adding that once photos are uploaded onto Facebook or Instagram, they are inevitably altered by the context of the platform.
For example, “Instagram has a very upbeat, cheerful, brand-friendly format,” she said. “Once an image is inserted into that context, it’s very hard for it to carry a different kind of weight.”
In addition, all social media platforms limit the ways in which you can engage with content. On Facebook, you can “react” to a post with a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, and laughter. But on Instagram and Twitter, your only options are to “like” a post, repost it, or comment on it.
This can restrict our ability to have complex and nuanced conversations about difficult topics.
“These platforms are very much about quick responses, consumption, and reaction — they want engagement, whatever it is,” Raicu said. When someone posts a picture from a tragic site like Chernobyl or Auschwitz, “conversations can be much more limited and stilted and framed by what’s made available by the platform, rather than by what we’re really trying to communicate.”
Social media can also amplify a phenomenon called “context collapse,” in which a post “reaches a lot of people who don’t know each other very well” and “makes misunderstandings more likely to happen,” she said.
One way to limit context collapse is to only share photos and posts with those who know you well and are most likely to interpret your posts in the way you intend for them to be interpreted, Raicu said.
And “with some of these very emotionally and ethically charged places, people need to be extra careful, and maybe need to spell out their intentions, as a kind of respect,” she added. “Bottom line: There are some things that belong on public social media, and some things that really don’t.”
The camera as witness
So why even take photos of tragic sites in the first place, let alone risk posting them on social media?
For better or for worse, social media has created a dynamic for many people in which “pictures are really only meaningful if you share them,” Sturken said.
Ultimately, we need to remember that sites like Auschwitz, the Holocaust Memorial, Chernobyl, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and Omaha Beach are “sites of historical education” that are “intended for visitors,” Sturken added. “It’s inevitable that people are taking pictures there.”
And in a way, taking pictures is the point.11 comments on this story
These sites — which signify unspeakable horror, death and loss — have been turned into memorials and museums to remind people what took place there, and to say, “‘This should not happen again. We need to understand what happened here,’” Sturken said.
Taking a photo is one way of remembering — of “witnessing” — the reality of those events, she added.
And sharing a photo can be a “kind of testimony,” Raicu said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Yes, these things exist.’”
“In general, we want to err on the side of events being witnessed by a camera rather than not being witnessed by a camera,” Sturken said. “Things that aren’t photographed have a tendency to be less present in our memories.”