Sacrilegious Selfies: Is Taking Photos at “Sacred” Places Inappropriate?

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Do you think it’s inappropriate to take a selfie at places thought by most people to be somehow sacred? Read the article and take our poll below.

Earlier this year Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary announced that it added “selfie” to its esteemed pages in order to accommodate the growing influence technology is having on our language. Defined as “an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera especially for posting on social networks,” the selfie has become a symbol of our interconnectedness in the digital age, where we can now broadcast ourselves to a wider audience than anyone would have thought possible a few decades ago. However, it has also become a symbol of the narcissism and self-centeredness of millennials (a term also now in the dictionary that refers to those born in the 1980s or ’90s). A recent incident raises questions about how to integrate this new sociological phenomenon into the broader fabric of society.

Auschwitz SelfieA month ago a young woman using the Twitter name “Princess Breanna” posted a smiling selfie taken at Auschwitz, complete with a blushing smiley face emoticon in the text above it. Recently it has gone viral, sparking outrage and bitterness among many, and it’s not hard to see why. Over a million people were unjustly tortured and killed within the walls of that concentration camp. Posing and smiling on ground soaked with so much blood just feels intuitively wrong to most people. But Breanna isn’t alone: an entire Tumblr blog, Selfies at Serious Places, documents people taking pictures everywhere from the Vietnam Memorial to Chernobyl. How do we deal with this phenomenon?

On one hand, a selfie is a cry for attention. It’s a “Look at me! I was here!” The taker of the photo is placed at the center of the frame, dwarfing their surroundings. They are almost always smiling and they usually strike some sort of cheerful pose, in an attempt to portray their best selves. Selfies are about acquiring content to display. In this sense, Auschwitz selfies are wildly inappropriate. Auschwitz isn’t about you—Auschwitz isn’t content to be shared haphazardly. Visiting Auschwitz is about solemnly remembering the dead and reflecting on the evil that was perpetrated there.

However, selfies also attempt to place their taker in a context. Depending on the intent, they are not so much a glorification or a brag as much as a documentation of one’s experiences. Perhaps they could even act as a tribute. In Breanna’s case, she defended her selfie by noting that her deceased father instilled in her a love of World War II history. Her selfie, taken on the one-year anniversary of his death, was meant to act as a tribute to her father, to document the culmination of a journey on which her father started her off. Does this excuse her smile and the carefree nature of her tweet? Probably not. But it places it in a wider context, and it points towards reasonable ways to implement digital culture into solemn places without instituting an outright smartphone ban.

Humanists generally don’t subscribe to the same notion of sacredness that others do, yet humanists also believe in human decency and being “good without a god.” How can humanists embrace new technology while also remembering and respecting the past? How can we create a secular digital ethics? Should humanists even care if these photos aren’t explicitly hurting anyone? I don’t claim to have answers for these questions. Rather, I am pointing to the importance of a broader conversation that needs to happen in society. Digital culture is not going to slow down, and secular voices need to be represented in discussions of digital ethics.