World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but the horrors of the Holocaust (or Shoah, in Hebrew) have not receded from historical memory. Yet for some reason, there’s a disconnect when it comes to social media culture. Many people casually visit Holocaust memorial sites and take selfies or sexy pics, all the while knowing that death is all around them.
That’s where Israeli-German writer and satirist Shahak Shapira’s project comes in. Shapira, 28, sick of seeing people post images to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, and Grindr of them hanging out and having a fun time on the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, took the matter into his own hands. In his chilling project “YOLOCAUST,” a bleak reference to the acronym “YOLO,” or “you only live once,” he calls out the normalization of the Holocaust through these carefree selfie images at memorial sites. To do this, he simply manipulated the original selfies at the memorial to include actual photos of Nazi crimes, which range from piles of dead bodies to pictures of starving people jailed in concentration camp bunks.
The seamless Photoshopping job was what really made this project click. Upon visiting Yolocaust.de, which launched mid-January, you’d find various people’s selfies at the Holocaust memorial. However, if you moved your mouse over them, the once-joyful images transformed into the Photoshopped ones of Nazi death camps.
Within one week of launching, the page was visited by 2.5 million people, and all 12 people Shapira featured in the project had taken their photos off of social media and also apologized. In fact, that was a part of the project in the first place: The artist invited the people in the pictures to contact him asking that he take their pictures down, simply by emailing [email protected] After that exchange, Shapira rearranged the homepage of Yolocaust.de to present the responses he received and took down the images. He cited “success” as a reason for ending the viral project, but in some ways all of this was planned: He knew the project would shock people, make the original selfie-shooters more aware, and wouldn’t go on indefinitely.
One of the most poignant responses came from a young man whose selfie showed him jumping across concrete slabs, with the caption: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.” Here’s a bit from his explanation, which you can read in full on the edited Yolocaust.de page:
The photo was meant for my friends as a joke. I am known to make out of line jokes, stupid jokes, sarcastic jokes. And they get it. If you knew me you would too. But when it gets shared, and comes to strangers who have no idea who I am, they just see someone disrespecting something important to someone else or them.
That was not my intention. And I am sorry. I truly am.
With that in mind, I would like to be undouched.
In a similar project from 2013, “Selfies at Serious Places,” journalist Jason Feifer collected selfies of people smiling and enjoying themselves at Holocaust memorial sites. Some people wrote and apologized for their callous selfies at the Holocaust memorial, like this guy, but others who took photos at death sites just saw it as a backdrop for a moment with themselves — like this guy. Before Feifer’s project, there was also Mark Adelman’s “Stelen (Columns)” (2012), which culls pictures from various gay dating sites of 100 (admittedly hot) men posing at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Yet both of these projects hinge on fascination. They begin to call out their subjects but then sort of trail off, as if to say: How could people take these pictures in the first place? And why? In other words, these projects seem more interested in understanding the selfie as a kind of visual cultural phenomenon rather than taking a strong moral stance. They don’t go as far as “YOLOCAUST,” which takes a clear position on how problematic and unacceptable these images are, ultimately calling for an apology simply by showing people what they are really saying through these posts. This, I think, has something to do with the timing of these projects — since 2012, selfies have become far more mainstream, more part of everyday life and less sensationalized. It is, in a way, refreshing to see a project that doesn’t so much care to analyze these images as social studies than calling people out for being jerks.