Holocaust Memory and Online Shaming
In November, I shared my thoughts on what social media can do for contemporary research on Holocaust consciousness. These “slippery” historical sources – always in flux – help everyday people to express themselves and their engagement with the history of the Holocaust; yet they often present ethical complications. I am frequently asked how, as a Holocaust scholar, I can ethically “justify” or consider social media images which feature inappropriate behaviour or self expression at solemn memorial sites, callous captions, or even smiling faces at sites of mass death.
Berlin-based Israeli satirist Shahak Shapira’s recent project, YOLOCAUST, addresses these issues. Shapira’s project lifted photos from a variety of social media platforms without permission; all images were selfies taken at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The images featured smiling faces, yoga, or other silly and playful behaviour. Apart from the troublesome and gleeful imagery, one image featured the the caption “Jumping on the bodies of dead jews at the Holocaust memorial.” Shapira added a new dimension to these images by splicing them together with archival Holocaust footage – all featuring victims of the genocide.
When the viewer rolled their cursor over the images, the setting behind the subject would disappear, now replaced with archival footage. The photographs were no longer just selfies, or evidence of a person’s time spent in Berlin; they had become examples of a complicated form of online policing, and a marker of expectation for how people are meant to behave in public spaces of solemnity.
What are the ethics of Shapira’s work? I think it is ethically questionable at best – not only when it comes to the individual images collected from Instagram, Facebook, Tinder and Grindr, but also when considering the use of archival footage. The ethical argument that can be made about whether you should take a selfie at Auschwitz also applies to whether you should use archival imagery from a genocide in combination with personal (albeit public) photos to shame someone in a public forum for not experiencing a space in the same way you would. While I neither condone all of the questionable captions that I stumble across in my research, nor all of the behaviour I see in the images I examine, I think that online responses to these forms of expression are extremely important to consider in the contemporary politics of Holocaust remembrance – especially in the digital age. The photographs shared on social media can help us to investigate whether public engagement with Holocaust memory has changed over time; these photographs can also help us confront uncomfortable aspects of the conversation about Holocaust memorialization.
The argument that Shapira is trying to make is one that is tied to a deep and complex understanding of the geographies of the Holocaust, both as a historical event and as individual and networked spaces and places for its remembrance. Perhaps Shapira wishes that all visitors to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe spend their time reflecting on the graphic history of Nazi crimes; by linking tourist photography to archival images, Shapira suggests that visitors should think before they pose. However, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was intended to be an urban memorial, constructed to be integrated into the cityscape of Berlin and supporting the continuation of city life in tandem with remembrance. The space is meant to work with human interaction – in whatever form that engagement assumes. It is worth considering the words of the memorial’s architect, Peter Eisenmann, in his recent response to Shapira’s work: “there are no dead people under my memorial.” Shapira’s criticism and public shaming of particular modes of behaviour is an attempt to invoke specific aspects of Holocaust visuality and memory in a space where that concentration camp imagery is not present (though you can choose to visit the exhibit below the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, this does not provide historical context in itself). Shapira’s perception of Holocaust memory and memorialization is deeply tied to the visceral reaction one is expected to have while remembering the true and authentic imagery of the Holocaust.
It is also worth considering that neither side of this experience is “wrong”; the individuals featured in Shapira’s work have every right to engage with the space as they choose, just as Shapira is welcome to criticize them for it. It is more important to confront the expectations we have for modes of behaviour in particular spaces. The press coverage and conversation relating to Shapira’s YOLOCAUST demonstrates that a spatial and geographical understanding of the Holocaust and its history must also extend to the digital sphere – especially when the public’s perception of Holocaust memory is so central to Holocaust representation in the current age. In other words, we must continue to think critically about how and why the ethics of photography matter to us, especially when confronting our own complicated relationships with the images and the sites of the Holocaust.