Photography, selfies and mass murder

By Katelyn Verstraten

Selfie sticks waving in the air. Cellphone cameras flashing. Teenagers making peace signs.

It’s an overcast May afternoon and tourists are photographing a site in Berlin. But this isn’t just any tourist destination: this is the Topography of Terror, a location that once housed the SS, SD and Gestapo headquarters, and where the Nazis planned the extermination of millions.

“The Nazis would enter their offices here, finish their last sip of coffee, sharpen their pencils, and then plot mass murder,” FASPE European director Thorsten Wagner tells us as we survey the site.

More than one million people visited the Topography of Terror in 2014, many of them taking pictures that may well have ended up on Facebook and Instagram.

Having worn a camera around my neck for most of the day, I am no exception—but I can’t help feeling perturbed. Is photographing a location associated with heart-wrenching history acceptable for a tourist? For a journalist? Ever?

Berlin is filled with sites that both seduce photographers and raise ethical questions.

c charlie 2

Tourist taking photographs at Checkpoint Charlie. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

A classic example is Checkpoint Charlie, an infamous border crossing between Soviet East Berlin and the American sector of West Berlin during the Cold War.

Today it is a popular tourist destination. For a small fee, visitors can have their photo taken with actors impersonating American soldiers.

When I first visited Berlin five years ago, I posed with a group of friends, but this time I photograph the tourists, trying to determine the role photography should play when visiting the site.

This is hardly a unique dilemma. In 2014, Israeli youth visiting Auschwitz were criticized for taking selfies in front of the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. At first glance, the photos appear to be lighthearted holiday snapshots, yet the remains of crematoria and gas chambers stand mere meters away.

c charlie 4

Tourists often line up to take photos with actors posing as soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

Was it photographing the former concentration camp that raised concerns, or the act of taking frivolous selfies where more than a million people were murdered?

Maybe photography is a way of remembering. Maybe it makes light of a place’s horrific past. Maybe it all depends on the context of the photo, or the spirit in which a picture is taken.

“All of Europe is covered with scars,” Wagner tells us at the end of our tour. “And we are just trying to keep on living.”

I’m going to keep taking photos of the places we visit, but I won’t be striking a pose. Selfies and mass murder shouldn’t go hand in hand.








Leave a Reply