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Has our culture of visual documentation gone too far?

Is it respectful to take a selfie at Auschwitz? Source:

By Karis Pearson

Our desire to visually record every aspect of our lives has become disturbingly normal in the Instagram obsessed society in which we live. Whether you personally feel the need to snap every somewhat-significant moment of your day, or if you roll your eyes at the so-called narcissism of those who do, it is undeniable that taking photos has become a primary focus at birthdays, on holidays or even during a visit to our local coffee shop.

This photography phenomenon has not been accepted in all public arenas, with Beyoncé banning cameras at her concerts and places of interest like London’s Westminster Abbey and Rome’s Sistine Chapel also saying no to photographers. However, there are places where taking photos is not specifically disallowed, but where we should perhaps consider for ourselves whether it is the most appropriate action to take. This week I ask, has our culture of visual documentation gone too far?

A lot of us take photos for memories. I myself took plenty of photos during a recent trip to Poland, photos which if I am honest will likely sit on my camera roll for many months to come. I cannot be alone here, continually taking photos which remain clogged among the many megabytes of stuff on my phone, and yet I don’t stop, most of us don’t. We think we need photos to remember our experiences. That walk in Bute Park on a rare sunny day in January, that cake our housemate made us for our 21st birthday. When we encounter something we want to remember, we snap it, freezing the moment forever. Those of us with the inclination might even send it off to FreePrints (the 21st century Kodak), so we can hold our memory on a piece of glossy photo paper, tack it on our wall to look at from time to time, remembering.

However, research indicates that remembering through visual documentation may not be as effective as we think. Undertaken by Dr Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, Connecticut, this research found evidence when we take photos of objects we may be less likely to remember them as they really were. This phenomenon is known as the ‘photo-taking impairment effect’, and suggests that taking photos of moments might in fact distort and impair our memories of them. The additional fact that the sheer number of photos we collate on our digital devices is so immense most of us do not take the time to properly engage with them, only exacerbates this impairment.

While taking photos gives us the physical memory of a moment or an object. truly giving the moment itself our fullest attention would likely allow us to foster a potentially far fuller and richer memory, more meaningful that a photo of a half baked one, surely? Approaching life through the lens of a camera is not how most of us want to live, but still it happens so often. When at a music concert or on a night out you look around and see people around you who are filming every second, not bothering to be fully present because they’ll have the footage forever, even if they never look at it again. However, visually documenting a music concert is in a wholly different arena to photographing a site where mass atrocities occurred against the human race.

While in Poland, I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, and was shocked at the number of people who stood around selfies or brazenly posing in front of the historic camp gates for photos. If you haven’t been, the gates as you enter the camp read ‘Arbeit macht frei’, translating to ‘Work sets you free’. Unlike those who were persecuted during the Holocaust, those of us who visit Auschwitz are able to move freely as and where we like, exercising basic freedoms that those who were cruelly persecuted during the Holocaust were strictly denied. By taking a photo of our experience and posting it online, we forget to remember how fortunate we are to live in a world where we are free to do so.

When we find ourselves in a place with such a deep and troubling history, or a place with religious or cultural significance for a group to which we do not belong, we might wish to photograph it, aware that it is something very different and keen to keep the memory. Photography allows the atrocities occurring in far-away lands to be bought to our screens, bringing political struggles and human rights abuses to the attention of foreign civilians. These photos can be a key to our understanding the past and bettering ourselves from it. However, when in these such scenarios, is the fact taking a photo comes to the forefront of our thoughts a sign of our desire for historical justice, or a reflection of an ignorant society?

While investigating how far some of us have gone on the quest to digitally document our lives, I came across a blog whose name makes me nauseous. Tindercaust, is a blog housing a collection of photos and selfies of people at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, a memorial to the approximately 3 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. We live in a world where people visit Holocaust memorials and take selfies which they upload to Tinder, I suspect, not as an act of respect, but to give their profile a bit of oomph.

I am not presuming to know why each individual may want to take a photo at any given time. It is not my place to decide whether someones desire to photograph themselves at Auschwitz or the Holocaust Memorial is a narcissistic act for social media or a meaningful reminder of what they witnessed. All I know for sure is watching visitors take smiling selfies, in front of a pile of weathered belongings stolen from victims before they were led to their death, just didn’t quite sit right with me.

So, when visiting a memorial or a site where of mass execution, take it all in, learn from what you are fortunate enough to bare witness to, but consider that taking a selfie or even a picture, may not be necessary. A selfie, defined as “a photo one has taken of oneself”, puts us at the centre of an image, or a memory. When visiting somewhere like Auschwitz I feel we should put ourselves and our egos aside, to remember those who suffered without the freedoms we enjoy. But if you really need a selfie to respect and remember the 1.3 million who suffered and died within Auschwitz’s walls, then by all means, snap away.

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