I have seen it on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I have seen it on WhatsApp profile photos. I have seen it on dating apps like Tinder and Bumble and I have even seen it as wallpapers on people’s phones. Every time I see it, I ask myself the same question, do you not know where you are?
Never before in human history have we had the means to record the details of our daily lives quite as much as we do now. Each one of us is walking around with a device that has the potential to record and document everything we see, hear, feel, think… and a platform on which we can share all of these details at any time we want. We share our thoughts and opinions on Twitter, our photos and videos on Instagram and our likes and dislikes on our dating profiles. We live in a world where if I cannot record and show anyone else where I am, what I am doing or how I feel, well what is the point?
While many would see this as simply a want to share our lives with friends and family, others would say it speaks of a deeper want for validation and recognition in a world of increasing superficiality and anonymity. Those likes and comments mean more to us than the experience itself as it tells us that people know who we are, they see us, and we matter, we exist.
Instagram, with over 900 million active monthly users, is for many people the app of choice when it comes to searching for that recognition. With international travel and accommodation becoming more accessible than ever to millions of people, travel photos are some of the most valuable social media currency.
Such is the popularity of travelling, there are blogs dedicated to so called ‘Instagram holidays’ where the best locations to visit and post from are highlighted to ensure the biggest yield of like and comments. There are even sites that offer advice on the best time to post holiday photos on Instagram, so that there is no risk of your photos becoming lost in the millions of photos posted every day on the app. If you live in Los Angeles, Monday at 5pm is apparently the best time to post.
Geotagging is the way to sketch your Instagram holiday map. Instagram offers a function where you can geotag your photos so that others can use apps like Google maps to find the exact location of where the photo was taken so that they can recreate that photo for themselves. While geotagging may offer a convenient way of discovering local sites, it does not provide any information about the place, just where it is. The more a place is tagged, the more popular it becomes as more and more people want to recreate photos taken there. This does not come without its issues as hidden gems become tourist favourites putting fragile ecosystems and ancient monuments at risk from the increased exposure and human traffic.
This focus on the photo rather than the place has led to an increasing number of people taking photos at places that most would deem inappropriate. Located in Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe stands as a sobering reminder to us all of the 6 million Jews that were murdered during the Second World War. The austere memorial comprising of a field covered in 2,711 concrete slabs, has become a focus of debate not only about how Germany remembers its past but also how quickly we seem to be forgetting what happened only some 80 years ago.
If you search for Berlin on Instagram, you will find hundreds of photos tagged at the memorial. Whimsical photos of friends laughing, people skipping over the blocks or even photos of people showing off their best yoga pose have all been tagged at the memorial site. Whether its indifference or ignorance, the chance to have your photo taken here is more about the aesthetic and likes for Instagram than it is about paying your respects and learning about one of the most heinous acts of the 20th century.
Other Holocaust memorial sites have become victim to the search for the perfect Instagram photo opportunity as photos at Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the house of Anne Frank in Amsterdam have become popular places for selfies.
A Berlin-based Israeli satirist named Shahak Shapira has launched an art project that juxtaposes found selfies of people smiling, juggling, and doing yoga at the Berlin memorial with archive footage from concentration camps. Visitors practicing their yoga poses now stand atop murdered Jews heaped on top of each other. His site, Yolocaust.de, features 12 photos like this that serve as stark reminders of what these memorial sites are about.
Memorials and sites of historical significance for the Holocaust are not the only ‘sensitive’ locations to see an influx of Instagrammers looking for photos seemingly unaware of the dark history behind them. The killing fields of the Cambodian genocide or the ghost town of Chernobyl have all become increasingly popular places to take selfies as more and more people display a baffling level of ignorance when it comes to history. It seems the social media revolution has created a culture of “if it is not on my social media profile, then it did not happen” all to the detriment of any kind of lesson or importance the place holds.
While taking holidays on photos is far from a recent phenomenon, the want to visit a place solely for a photo opportunity or to provide proof that you did indeed visit that place, has led to a paradigm shift in the culture of taking photos. For some, that photo is about showing others the kind of ‘life’ you want them to believe you live, while for others its about getting the most likes and comments and that sweet hit of serotonin and validation. The increasing superficiality with which we record our lives has seen consideration for the history or importance of places cast aside, perhaps due to the inconvenience it would place on our consciousness or ‘vibe’.
The Holocaust happened almost 80 years ago and perhaps some visiting memorial sites believe things like this are resigned to the past and as such it is not important to know what happened. Unfortunately, humanities want and need to hurt others is something that will never be resigned to the past. Whether it is the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China, or the separation of families at the U.S Mexico border, sites like those in Berlin or Amsterdam should remind us that the actions of the past are very much part of the present.
While the Instagram-travel culture is not going to disappear anytime soon, we should take a moment to consider the significance of the place we are visiting, or in some cases perhaps, imagine what would it be like to take a photo with those who suffered the pain and anguish that inspired the need to signify this place. Doing so would ensure that they are never forgotten or worse, become the backdrop of someone’s dating profile.