Selfies at Auschwitz: Documentation in the Internet Age

Selfies are a widely discussed phenomenon in pop culture. People take pictures of themselves doing pretty much anything and everything. There is even a very annoying song about taking selfies. Everyone seems to want to understand the selfie, from explaining the history of self portraiture and calling selfies art, to applauding them as a tool for building self-confidence and  personal agency. Others demand that selfies are just silly, self-indulgent, and narcissistic. Either way, they are a part of life on the Internet and a common way of documenting one’s life on social media. With this phenomenon comes stupidity, boundary crossing and a whole lotta overreaction (aka everything that has happened on the Internet ever).


My recent photo tribute to grief. Not a smiling selfie- but still a compulsion to photo document and share.
My recent photo tribute to grief. Not a smiling selfie- but still a compulsion to photo document and share.

Enter high school graduate Breanna, who took a smiley selfie at Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp from the Holocaust. There is a context for this photo: apparently this young woman’s father died a year ago and traveling to Auschwitz was a shout out to the time they both spent studying World War II together. Of course, a selfie and a quick tweet don’t give that context. It does give an audience, however. Almost a month after this picture was posted,  the photo was picked up by a couple of news sources and then a couple more. Soon thousands of angry tweets were coming the way of this 18-yr-old girl.

She wouldn’t apologize but eventually added her context  via Twitter (she did this interview, as well). Her mother, too, joined in the defense.  Still death threats were coming in. Though Breanna eventually made her account private, the photo is still easy to find (I’m not posting the photo on principle, but the articles I reference both feature it). Comments and criticism are still pouring in. This young woman’s whole life is on display to the whole world, because of one picture that probably took a couple of seconds to post.

I’m not saying that young people (like me)  shouldn’t understand the impact of what they put on the Internet, but I also understand the cultural phenomenon this young woman is living in. Having grown up with social media and smart phones, it is natural for her to document her life online. Her tribute to her dad was nothing more than that in her head, I’d imagine, but now she’s created international scandal.

When I graduated college, I ceremonially took some roses to the graves of people who were important on my  journey through college, including the Sister who started my school and the former president of the university (who had just recently died). I greatly admired these women and wanted to honor them. I also took pictures (without my face in them). The circumstances of either of these women’s deaths obviously doesn’t equal the tragedy of what happened in the Holocaust, but it’s still a sort of odd concept- documenting your interactions with death online. I had a compulsion, however, to document this journey of grief and growth and post them on Facebook for all my friends to see.

There is fault on all sides of this issue. Young people have to understand the impact their selfies (and anything they post on the Internet or even send in a text or SnapChat) have and consider appropriateness. I am not arguing against responsibility. Still those who are older than the selfie trend have to understand the complexity of the culture it has created. There isn’t ever an occasion where a selfie should be followed by a death threat. I’m not sure when teenagers’ Twitter accounts have become real news either and worthy of being capitalized upon for page views (which is almost definitely what the original highlighting of this picture by news sources was about- publicity and page views). And though I don’t know this girl personally, it doesn’t seem like she was mocking Holocaust survivors. Before shaming the “youth” of today,  consider the context  and the culture that is important on the Internet like it is anywhere else in life.


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