These days most of us have a camera of sorts on us at all times. Doesn’t mean we have to use it though, does it? No, says Lucy Reynolds, particularly not in certain sensitive spaces.
Neither was I surprised that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, felt the need to announce they were banning anyone playing the game on the site of the former Nazi death camp.
I wasn’t surprised – because I know some people are morons.
Last year, after wanting to go for years, I visited Auschwitz. I know it’s not a typical holiday desire (some call visits like this ‘dark tourism’), but I’ve always been equally appalled and fascinated by the Holocaust, and felt that it was somewhere I wanted to experience. In fact, I think it is a place everyone should visit – if only to try to show people what happens when we let hate manifest itself unchecked. *waves at Donald Trump supporters*
I was nervous about how I’d feel walking around such a grim place. A friend had told me not to organise anything for the night as I’d not be in the mood to go out afterwards.
She was right, but for the wrong reason.
Instead of leaving full of contemplation, I was livid. Not just with what had happened to millions of innocent people, but with the behaviour of those in the museum with me that day. Crowds of visitors who had paid to go on a guided tour of the former death camp, and yet who ignored all of the information boards which outlined the history of the camp, rustled in their bags while our guide gave us emotive insights into the lives of those who lived and died there.
“I actually saw teenagers taking duck-face selfies outside the gas chambers. What do you do with that exactly? A grisly show and tell for the folks back home? Facebook status update?”
I was furious that even after several polite requests NOT to photograph certain sensitive exhibitions, these cretins snapped away to their hearts’ content.
A pile of human hair: click!
A mountain of discarded glasses: click!
A collection of extracted teeth – zoom in for those: click!
It was as if owning a camera was an open ticket to take photographs of anything they liked – the more disturbing the better.
When we were taken to Block 11, one of the most upsetting areas of the camp, infamous for being the site of the most hideous tortures and indignities, and a place that meant certain death for any prisoner sent there, it got worse.
There’s a cell where Catholic priest Father Maximilian Kolbe died, having sacrificed his own life to stand in the place of Polish army sergeant Franciszek Gajowniczek. Kolbe’s sacrifice meant Gajowniczek lived to see the liberation of Auschwitz. The cell where Kolbe died has a permanent shrine, with a candle burning to symbolise the hope that his sacrifice gave in such horrifying circumstances.
Our guide asked, yet again, for people to refrain from taking photographs in any of the cells. Still they swarmed in, smartphones in hand, trying to find the right angles to fully get the candle in shot, checking their results then readjusting their stance to get more of the murky cells in the frame.
I actually saw teenagers taking duck-face selfies outside the gas chambers. WTF? What do you do with that exactly? A grisly show and tell for the folks back home? Facebook status update?
I left Auschwitz with a sick feeling that this had become just another box to tick on the tourist trail: a chance to say, “Been there, seen the gas chambers, got the selfie.” Pop that I ❤️ Auschwitz mug* in the cupboard next to the Twin Towers memorial shot glass.
*These don’t exist, though I’m confident they’d be a bestseller.
What effect has the rise of the smartphone had on our view and understanding of the real world? Not only do we hold the capability to be able to record an image or video of anything we do, but we also have instant access to images from all over the world, giving us unprecedented access to a global network of information. Why then this need to record our presence at places, such as Auschwitz?
There must be people who visit Auschwitz as a pilgrimage, a possible remembrance of family members lost. Yet most of the people I saw just seemed to have an insatiable desire to collect as many photographs of Auschwitz memorabilia as possible.
Dr Jay Prosser is the author of Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss, co-editor of Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, and reader of humanities at the University of Leeds, and has plenty to say on this compulsive need for some to record their own images, including ones of themselves, at such culturally sensitive places as Auschwitz and Ground Zero.
“I sense that photographing sites of atrocity or their vestiges is an unconscious way of not engaging in the moment, not being present in the scene,” he says. “Photography always imagines futurity, and hence ‘kills’ the present – as Susan Sontag notes, there’s a reason why we speak of the act of photography as ‘shooting pictures’.
“Taking a photograph gives the reader something to do, and therefore is a way, momentarily, of not being. Yes, I think people are recording their presence in sites of atrocity but also as a way of absenting their eyes and looking.”
“We learned and listened and contemplated and sympathised. Did the experience suffer from not being able to take a selfie to prove that you were there? Nope.”
In Sontag’s 1977 essay, On Photography, she discusses her belief that photography can be not only “narcissistic” but also a “powerful instrument for depersonalising our relation to the world”. This definitely sums up the feeling I had when I walked around Auschwitz, listening to people tut when the guides tried to remind them that certain areas had no photography allowed (not that it stopped them), as if their human rights were being impinged on because they weren’t allowed to snap what they wanted.
The irony of people complaining about not being allowed to do what they wanted in such a place was painful. We pay to go into a museum and expect to be given an experience of sorts, but that doesn’t give us the right to do whatever we want. Yes, we have a camera on our phones, but that doesn’t give us carte blanche to record everything we see.
It’s another form of consumerism in a way – mindlessly viewing places through a tiny screen when the reality is right in front of you, or as Sontag puts it, “to possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to re-experience the unreality and remoteness of the real.” Quite.
As I write this, I’m in Budapest and have just visited Terror Haza (House of Terror), a museum commemorating the victims of the Communist terror organisations that ruled the country between 1944 and 1956.
It strictly enforced a ‘No photography’ policy and had an assistant in every room watching for this (Auschwitz: take note). People walked around and read the information. Teenagers sat watching the videos supplied. Others scoured the information boards and actually looked at the artefacts.
We learned and listened and contemplated and sympathised. Did the experience suffer from not being able to take a selfie to prove that you were there? Nope.
This is my plea: put our cameras and smartphones away and actually look at what’s in front of us. Maybe we can fully appreciate and learn from the real world and not just collect a facsimile of an image we have no connection to.
Thanks to Dr Jay Prosser of the University of Leeds.
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Lucy is a teacher whose dream as a child was to be WWE Wrestling Champion. That dream is still alive.