Should You Take Photos at a Concentration Camp?

Should you take photos at a concentration camp? People have a lot of opinions on whether you should document a visit to a concentration camp (and if so, how). For me, I came into the experience wanting to document and share the experience. The camps still exist to be seen and bear testimony to what happened there. Taking respectful photos is a way of enforcing that this happened here.

Photography at the camps

Auschwitz, in particular, strongly encourages respectful photography. As more time passes between the Holocaust and the present day, its sense of realness diminishes. A distressing number of people believe the Holocaust never existed. Others believe it’s been exaggerated. Like it wasn’t that bad. You could almost argue that visitors to these sites have a responsibility to take and share photographs. To make the world, their friends, their families, the social networks remember. You’ve seen it. You know it happened. Here’s the photographic proof. But respectful photos….that’s the key. Here are some guidelines for how to approach photography at a concentration camp.

Taking photos at a concentration camp

  • Don’t let taking pictures dictate your experience of the camp. If you’re more focused on snapping a pic than the actual site around you, you’re doing this wrong.
  • Read the signs. Signage will indicate where you can and can’t take photographs.
  • As a guide, you can usually take exterior photos, while photos inside the museums generally are not allowed.
  • Don’t use the flash. It’s distracting, and can be seen as disrespectful.
  • Avoid using parts of the camp as any form of prop (or photographer’s aid, for that matter). Don’t stand, step, or balance on a piece of the camp furniture or architecture. Auschwitz has recently banned using the railway tracks as a balance beam. Which…that that even had to be addressed is just beyond me.
  • Try to avoid taking posed photographs. Especially selfies.

I personally cannot imagine why anyone would want a selfie in a concentration camp, let alone an extermination one. I’ve read that some surviving family members take photos of themselves at the camps. In these cases, I feel that’s their prerogative how they choose to approach this experience. If this is not the case for you, don’t take selfies.

In the end, I didn’t take many photos. Once I got to the sites, I found it disturbed me to see people focused on setting up shots or finding frames for the perfect photo. I took some photos, yes. But the rest I tried to process without the lens of documenting, and hoped my words and notes would be enough. However you choose to document (or not document) your trip, just remember what you’re bearing witness to. And then think of what your photographs will say about where you’ve been and what you’ve seen.

There are some other ways to prepare for a visit to a concentration camp. Read them here.