Bad behaviour from tourists has become a recurring theme in travel articles, with the best ways to respect Italy’s ancient artefacts a frequent topic of discussion. In Berlin, Germany, though, you don’t have to carve your name into a monument to find yourself in trouble. Tourists may invoke local disapproval simply for taking a photograph.
A range of commentators have been noting that Germans are not as fond of putting themselves out there on social media as some of their visitors. Taking a selfie in public can attract unwanted stares – and – as some have found out – public shaming.
Restraint, surveillance and counter culture
Writing for the BBC, Katy Bettes says that Germans exercise greater restraint than some other nationalities on social media. They guard their privacy fiercely, perhaps, notes Philipp Masur, assistant professor and digital communication specialist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, as a result of years of terrifying surveillance by the Stasi (Ministry for State Security).
Berlin’s radical counter-culture and club scene grew in great part out of a reaction to such state control. In my 2019 novel, I wrote about a seedy club scene in the UK, where a no-camera rule allowed abusive behaviours by the rich and powerful to reign. In Berlin however, those enjoying the freedoms offered by the underground music and kink scenes are more likely to be at the opposite end of the power spectrum. Not only do they find it “cheesy” or “lame” that someone should want to post on social media, but they do not welcome their own image being caught in the background of someone else’s social media post.
Meanwhile, many in the rest of the world have attempted to move on from judging those who take photographs of themselves. Since the early days of the selfie, it has became clear that women take more photos and use them in different ways on social media than men. Instead of judging those women, some have pointed out how unusual it is for women to be taking control and exhibiting the confidence to put their image in the public domain, enjoying their own gaze for once, instead of being subject, as they have been for centuries, to the male gaze.
And anyway, why is it anyone else’s business what you do with your own image?
Of course, it is, literally, other people’s business. Big business. Facebook or “Meta” is the world’s 10th largest company and is worth over $550 billion. Through data scraping and AI, it and other social media companies make money analysing your photographs and posts and targeting adverts at you – and your followers.
But, again as I wrote about in Sea of Bones, it takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to reject the need for a social media profile. For many entrepreneurs, the selfie is a major promotional tool they cannot afford to do without.
It is nonetheless surely possible to promote yourself and your business without causing offence, and one Israeli artist has launched a project to illustrate just that point. Shahak Shapira’s art project entitled “Yolocaust”, recontextualises selfies people have taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. “Over the last years, I noticed an interesting phenomenon at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin: people were using it as a scenery for selfies. So I took those selfies and combined them with footage from Nazi extermination camps,” explains Shapira.
Pictures of tourists leaping in the air, doing yoga on top of the monument and grinning in front of symbolic gravestones are edited. With brutal irony, Shapira extracts the gurning selfie-takers and portrays them standing on top of piles of Holocaust victims’ bones. The resulting juxtaposition is horrifying. He will remove the resulting image from his website only if the original poster feels ashamed enough to contact him to ask him to take it down.
Visitors to Germany, Berlin, and to the Holocaust Memorial – be warned.