Let me take a selfie

by Laura Hornberger and Dana Dübbers

Holocaust memorials are built to remember the people that died for our freedom. Should we allow people to take amusing pictures here?

Around 20 Million people visit Amsterdam every year. Most of them for a short weekend trip, aiming to make as many memories as possible. Nowadays, you don’t send postcards to show friends and family extracts from your holidays anymore – instead, you take selfies in front of places representing the area.

One of those places is the Anne Frank House, ranked number two on Tripadvisor’s list of best sights in Amsterdam. Hundreds of people wait in line and tap their feet until they can take a selfie next to the ‘Anne Frank Huis’ sign. Tourists take a variety of poses: thumbs-up, finger pointing to the sign, the duck face. Selfies are the new souvenirs, an eternal memory. It’s all smiling faces in front of monuments for the people that died in the Second World War.

Karel Wendler, a lecturer in tourism at InHolland University in Diemen, says ‘it is a sin to take selfies at Holocaust memorials’. In his opinion, selfies are linked to the culture of self and are all about self-promotion. ‘It is not about the history, it is about: Look at me. I took a selfie at a famous location. So the image is a regard but also a proof of existence for a lot of people in today’s society’, he adds.

The discussion about whether taking selfies in front of holocaust memorials is ethically justifiable started when Breanna Mitchell, a teenager from Alabama, posted a smiling selfie during a tour of the concentration camp in Auschwitz in 2014. The picture went viral and Breanna received hate messages after she commented that she doesn’t regret the photo.

‘There is a lack of knowledge of what actually happened at the place. Witnesses are dying and the connection to the history is lost’, Werdler says. He was a tour guide in the late 1970s, when he led excursions to Auschwitz. ‘It was a different situation since the genocide in Auschwitz took place only 40 years before then. Now you have the average Joe coming by’, he says.

Visiting Holocaust memorials has become a big tourist attraction. Back in 1947, 170,000 people visited Auschwitz, in 2014 their number had grown to over 1.5 million people. Not only people with specific cultural or historical interest want to see memorials anymore, there is a broader audience now. 8,000 to 10,000 visitors can be seen in Auschwitz each day, according to Pawel Sawicki, the director of communication of the Auschwitz memorial.

When searching the hashtag ‘Auschwitz’ on Instagram, users will find 333,801 shared photos that show people posing in front of the sign at the entry that says ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work sets you free’). Another common motif is the rails in front of the gate. And with the hashtag ‘holocaustmemorial’, mainly pictures taken at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin show up.

‘In Auschwitz I saw selfies which served commemoration and were supposed to save an emotional moment, but also selfies which were clearly inappropriate or disrespectful. I saw pictures that were taken as a joke’, says Sawicki.

This means that different kinds of people visit monuments like Auschwitz or the Anne Frank house with different motivations. ‘Their motivations to travel vary from ‘it was on Lonely Planet’ over pure curiosity to simply being in the neighbourhood’, says Karel Werdler. ‘But of course, a very big reason is still remembrance and showing respect’, he adds.

‘Usually freedom is seen as a higher ideal in our society than not hurting someone’s feelings.’

Rutger de Graaf, professor in communication ethics at University of Amsterdam, says: ‘It would be sinful not to take selfies in front of a memorial if you enjoy taking selfies in general, because some consider it sinful not following one’s beliefs’.

He doesn’t consider taking selfies as ethically questionable. ‘A lot of behavior is seen as disrespectful in another context’, he says. Breanna Mitchel, who caused the discussion, said that she didn’t mean any harm by posting the selfie as well. ‘You are just not aware of the fact that this could hurt someone. It’s a pretty one-sided dilemma’, De Graaf adds.

According to Karel Werdler, the management departments of memorials should set rules of contexts to avoid such selfies. ‘For instance, if you hand out a brochure saying taking selfies is regarded as disrespectful, I think a lot of people would be scared off’, he says.

De Graaf does not think forbidding people to take selfies will lead to more respectful behavior. ‘Usually, freedom is seen as a higher ideal in our society than not hurting someone’s feelings. It would be ironic to forbid people to do certain things because they have to respect people that died for freedom. I think you can’t force people to show a specific behavior because usually, the opposite happens then.’