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In Defense of Taking Selfies in Depressing Places

Selfies can give meaning to lives where none previously existed—validating some and giving the rest something to make them feel superior.

Photo via Twitter

A teenager from Alabama took a photo in front of a concentration camp where an estimated 1,000,000 people were killed. She did so while smiling. As you might have guessed, that did not sit well with the internet. In a New York Post article on the now-infamous Breanna Mitchell Auschwitz selfie, the writer quotes a particularly vitriolic response that simply said, "Did you manage to take any of you laughing inside a gas chamber or maybe one with your head stuck in a cremator?" A fair question which I don't believe she took the time to answer.

In an instant, Breanna became as close to the Devil as you can get without being Donald Sterling. Business Insider collected some of the more amusing insults and reactions from Twitter, which amounted to "fuck you" and little else. Despite this concerted effort to make her feel bad about herself, Breanna has continued to publicly defend her actions. It's almost like she has so much self-esteem and so little self-awareness that she'd have to be the only kind of person who would be dumb enough to take a selfie at a concentration camp.

By being completely ignorant of how some would interpret her vague digital communication (the only thing that's obvious from her photo is that she's happy and she's at Auschwitz. The rest is not clear), she's influenced a global conversation on the limits of self-involvement. Some have come to her defense, reminding us all that she's just a kid with a dead dad who shared her love of history. Others are plenty happy to keep fucking with her, which has pushed Breanna to make her Twitter page private. The internet is paying attention, and forming strong opinions about a picture she took over a month ago. Isn't that something to be proud of? She's already proud of herself for going to Auschwitz. Why not be proud of this too?

Can't she take some solace in the fact that, even if she's got haters to the left of her and haters to the right of her, that at least they know her name? I defy you to come up with a stronger, more valuable currency than recognition. OK, money's pretty up there on the currency scale, but you know who has tons of money? Famous people. More human beings have seen Breanna's selfie than will ever pay to see the new Zach Braff film. Try to let that sink in.

The commenters that made Breanna so infamous are, of course, the same ones who hate that she took a photo of herself at a concentration camp. In a misguided effort to stem the tide of selfies, we've once again created even more incentive to take selfies. Everyone wins in this twisted media 69—the outrageous get to see their face everywhere, and feel important. The outraged get to register their disgust and wait for the likes and faves to roll in. 

We actually need more Breannas in the world, not fewer. Selfies, like Pet Rocks, bell bottoms, and cocaine before them, are the ultimate signfier of modern social worth, but also targets for mockery. They actually help make everyone happier. Selfies can give meaning to lives where none previously existed—validating some and giving the rest an object of ridicule to make them feel superior.

Those that love selfies too will shower you with praise for taking such great photos. Those who hate selfies will rage about you on the internet because you are so good at taking selfies. Benny Winfield Jr., aka mrpimpgoodgame, has 227,300 followers on Instagram even though he takes the same fucking picture over and over and over again. He's clearly overflowing with self-esteem. Pimping good game is in his name for God's sake. For all we know, some of his selfies could have been taken at funerals. Would that make his game any less "pimp good"?

The selfie trend—if you can even call something this ubiquitous a mere "trend"—has spawned equal amounts of anger and admiration. For some, it's a reminder that human civilization has completely lost track of where its priorities truly belong. Why aren't we doing more for the poor? What about Afghanistan? Can we stop the cataclysmic effects of global warming? When is Johnny Depp going to find a good script to star in? No one is talking about this shit, because they're too busy taking photos of themselves at the 9/11 memorial!

For everyone else, it's just a fun thing to do with their free time, and a great way to let the world know how happy/sad you are. It's a very effective status update for a culture that is obsessed with status. I am at a visually interesting or famous location! I am wearing a great outfit that is flattering on my figure! You don't think about historical context or social propriety, because the only vital information you are hoping to impart is where you're at and how you look. As I said earlier, that's the only thing that we can gather from Breanna's photo. She is at Auschwitz and she's happy. She didn't say "I love Hitler" or espouse any political views. The only reason why Breanna is on the receiving end of so much hatred is because she had the audacity to smile at a concentration camp. I hate to break it to you all, but Breanna Mitchell smiling at Auschwitz is not the worst thing that ever happened at Auschwitz. I dare say that it's not even in the top 5,000.

Taking a selfie while writing this article. How meta.

This situation might have played out differently if Breanna had simply frowned in her photo instead of looking happy, like we all should when we vacation in Poland. No one could accuse her of insensitivity, since tourists take pictures at concentration camps all the time. This particular photo just happened to have its photographer inside the frame. If she had done what we all wanted her to do, and register her solemn contemplation, it's likely she would have escaped our scorn. It doesn't matter that she might have actually been happy. It's just that she's not allowed to show it.

Even if she'd appeared sad, what if her expression wasn't satisfactorily somber? What if she just wasn't sad enough? As you can see in my picture here, I am sad. I'm not having much fun writing this piece. That's mostly because I'm imagining all of the mean things people will say to me in the comments on this article and on Twitter. Also, my computer is running slowly since I have so many tabs open. It's called research, folks.

I'm a cynical man who's been disappointed more times than I can count—mostly by the Dodgers and the TV show Lost, but also other people. Breanna Mitchell is a teenager from Alabama who just graduated from high school and has a deceased father according to this Washington Post story. Other than that, she's probably had a fairly typical life for a privileged American teen. She is not a miserable bastard like me, though now she might be. She has the kind of fame where you have to consider changing your name and moving to a small island nation that doubles as a tax shelter for various and sundry Koch brothers. Life for her is going to fucking suck for awhile, but it's not as bad as it might seem today.

She can always remember that just around the corner is a Today Show or The View appearance where she can "come clean," "apologize," and "address her detractors." She's famous now, which is not something I can say for myself. The selfies I take kinda suck, so I continue to hope and pray for my moment of glory. Breanna can always take her moment of fame with her wherever she goes in her adult life. Also, unlike those unfortunate souls who died at Auschwitz, Breanna gets to keep living, which is a plus on her ledger. 

Whether or not we collectively appreciate this trend of documenting everything through cell phone photos, it's here to stay. The internet can try to shame teens as much as it wants, but shame didn't stop them from smoking weed in the 60s. Fear and embarrassment don't convince high school kids to stop fucking and having babies before they're ready. You want to stop kids from taking selfies where tragedies took place? Put up a sign. The sign should have a picture of Breanna Mitchell with a giant X over her face. Underneath that, write the caption, "No Selfies." Just be prepared for absolutely nothing to change, because if there's one thing that teenagers love more than themselves, it's ignoring rules. 

Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.