There we were, standing in silence in front of a crematorium at the Auschwitz extermination camp. Our guide had already explained how her grandfather had miraculously survived four years in Auschwitz after being taken as a political prisoner simply for attending university. Many people stood with bowed heads, meditating on the tragic history.
CLICK! The sound of a giant DLSR camera shattered the silence. CLICK! The photographer nudged aside a fellow tourist to shoot the crematorium from a different angle. Two tons of human hair shaved from the heads of murdered prisoners to be woven into fabric? CLICK! A pile of dead children’s shoes? CLICK! CLICK!
The woman and her partner had taken a more than casual interesting in capturing the minutiae of Auschwitz from the beginning. In fact, they seemed to be loving the experience. The man walked up to take a closer look at a wall were Polish political prisoners were executed. “Hey, honey!” she seemed to say. “Turn around!” The man turned around, looked over his shoulder, and gave a wide grin as she snapped away. Later at Birkenow, he would take one of her, smiling as she gazed over a field where the ashes of the dead still mix with the soil.
While this is an extreme (and bizarre) example of such behavior, inappropriate photography seems to be all too common. Auschwitz selfies are a thing, especially since visiting the site is a popular school excursion. And wherever there are teens, there are cell phone cameras. In fact, one woman searched Instagram, Facebook and Google for these photos and started a tongue-in-cheek Facebook page called With My Besties at Auschwitz. While it worked by shaming some of the duck-faced teens into deleting the photos, she eventually took it down. She felt she had proven her point – and she was receiving too many threats of lawsuits.
But a quick Instagram search of #Auschwitz reveals smiling selfies, jaunty hair tosses, and girls lounging in flowy summer dresses. One girl looks like she is standing in her bathroom at home, taking a photo of her bare-midriffed reflection in the mirror. Her hashtags? #bad #day #fuck #school #sad #girl #Auschwitz.
To be fair, many of the pics are respectful and artistic, even beautiful in their gloom, with thoughtful comments commemorating the gravity of experience. It is hopeful that at least some people – most people – are getting it
Photography is actually a huge part of the Auschwitz experience – the barracks are lined with mug shots of the prisoners so you can attach real faces to the stories. And who could forget the ghastly images of survivors taken by the soldiers who liberated the camp, pictures which told the world, “This really happened.”
I struggled with deciding whether to take photos at all. On one hand, the things I was seeing were truly unbelievable and the impact would be difficult to explain to people back home without photographic evidence. On the other hand, who would want to see these pictures? People already thought I was weird enough to want to go to see a genocide site. Who knows what they would’ve thought if I were to post a nicely curated album about the experience.
Our guide ended the tour in the barracks at Birkenau, addressing the selfie controversy and how some groups think that Auschwitz should be closed to the public since tourists are basically traipsing over other people’s graves. From her perspective, it is more important that people keep coming – and keep documenting – despite the disrespectful behavior of a few.
And what of that couple with the large camera? In my head, I like to think they are going to give detailed presentations about the evils of the Holocaust to middle schoolers. Surely this saintly endeavor would more than compensate for their morbid paparazzi behavior. If there’s anything my Auschwitz experience taught me, it’s that you gotta have hope.