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There’s Nothing Wrong With Posing for Photos at Chernobyl

You could, as some seem to wish, not share anything at all. But, as Natalie Shure, who researches history for TruTV, notes, “Most people do it specifically because they want to remember the site and what it meant to them. Those goals are in line with those of public-history projects, not antithetical to them.”

Before social media, remembering tragedies through personal photos was a private act. I can remember, just months after 9/11, visiting Ground Zero with my mother and asking her to snap a photo of me in front of it with my disposable camera. I wanted to remember not just what it looked like, but that I had been there. I kept the photo in my desk for years. It’s not inconceivable that had I been born 15 years later, I might have posted it to Instagram.

What makes photos posted to Instagram so awkward is that they’re inherently formatted for consumption rather than reflection. Not long after the app first launched, simply running photos of the site of a tragedy through Instagram’s default filtering tools was seen as gauche. Some people believed posting images of Auschwitz to the app at all crossed a line. It seemed wrong to reformat horror in an aesthetically pleasing way, then hope people engaged with it by tapping a “Like” button.

But as Instagram grew, it transformed into users’ default camera. The app was soon less about beautiful photography and more about documenting your life. 2014 ushered in the era of the selfie, a format that was initially seen as frivolous and self-absorbed. When a recent high-school graduate from Alabama posted a selfie from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Twitter in 2014, she faced mass backlash. To many, it seemed crass for all the same reasons that posting filtered photos had been years earlier. It was still interpreted as garish.

In 2019, everyone takes selfies. Meanwhile, influencers, a class of users who have been gaining increasing prominence on Instagram, have ushered in a new era on the platform. “At some point Instagram switched its culture from ‘pictures you took’ to ‘picture of you,’” the technologist Nicole He recently noted on Twitter. As influencer culture trickles down and more average users attempt to emulate it, new norms have emerged. Posed photos are standard, particularly among younger users.

These staged, full-body shots are sometimes criticized as attention grabs, and a few undeniably are. But as my colleague Alexis Madrigal noted to me, part of the reason people get so angry at images like the ones in Zupan’s tweet is because of a perceived gap between where attention should be aimed (the tragedy of Chernobyl) and what viewers interpret to be the focus of the photo (a person posing for the camera).

Blatantly rude and disrespectful behavior, like mocking deaths or climbing on the property of a historical site, is inexcusable. But a brief search of the Pripyat geotag reveals a stream of people who have simply posed for photos throughout the site. Instagram Stories tagged there include videos of visitors goofing off on a tour, a woman smiling on a swing, a man making funny faces into his front-facing lens. When removed from the context of Instagram, they’re jarring. But ultimately, “plandids” from Chernobyl say less about any imagined wave of rude influencers “flocking” to the site, and more about the shifting norms around how people document their lives and experiences on Instagram. While some critics might still view the posts as distasteful and insensitive, most of these users are all trying to say the same thing: “I was here.”

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