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Instagram user takes selfie at Chernobyl
Instagram user poses with abandoned ferris wheel at ChernobylVia Instagram @ana_omelchenko

From Chernobyl to Grenfell Tower: unpacking the rise of the tragedy selfie

As dark tourism gets an influx following HBO series Chernobyl, we explore the controversial ascent of the disaster selfie

Deep in the Balinese jungle, hundreds of tourists flock to see the decaying remains of local villagers. In the island’s Trunyan cemetery, the dead are not buried but rather laid to rest in bamboo cages – open to the sweltering elements. Although an ancient tradition in the village, the burial site has become a source of morbid fascination for visitors with a penchant for dark tourism – AKA tourism that involves travelling to places associated with death and suffering. 

The cemetery – where tourists can reportedly touch the bodies – has faced controversy recently, with locals pleading with visitors to respect the dead by staying away from the site. It’s both shocking and yet completely 2019 that bereaved families are having to ask obnoxious tourists to stop touching their dead relatives, please. 

Although arguably an extreme example, this kind of twisted exploration is prevalent across the world. Visitors to the eerie grounds of the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine have also faced similar criticism over the past month, with many being blasted for their insensitive social media posts (though it’s been debunked that these visitors were social media influencers). While Grenfell Tower residents actually had to ask passers-by to stop taking selfies with the burning building

Dark tourism has always been popular among those with idiosyncratic tastes (see: public executions), but the rise of social media has created a new beast – the disaster selfie. Though most of us are intrigued by catastrophe, surely we can all agree that getting a raunchy underwear snap in the abandoned site of a nuclear explosion is one step too far? 

“The disconnect between your own personal identity and the suffering of others is definitely inappropriate (behaviour at the site of a disaster)”, Karen Correia da Silva, social scientist at Canvas8, tells me over the phone. “On social media you’re only really going to see disrespectful images, because there’s no respectful way to take a throwaway Instagram photo where there was great human suffering, it just doesn’t exist.”

While simple intrigue might draw people to the site of a tragedy, the need to document the visit is driven by something more sinister (but very familiar) – the desire to show off. “People get a certain level of social credibility from it,” Correia da Silva explains, “because it shows that the person is pushing themselves to the margins in a way that we don’t typically get to do.”

Correia da Silva regards this performative behaviour as sacrilegious, suggesting that “any sort of personal gain” achieved through the suffering of others is “downright disrespectful”.

Fascinated with war and disaster, and having already visited Dunkirk, Auschwitz, and more, self-proclaimed ‘history nerd’ Fiona Barnes agrees that there’s a certain way to behave at these sites: “(These are places) for quiet reflection. You need to be going for the right reasons rather than just because it’s ‘on trend’; these aren’t destination holidays with loads of fun-filled activities.” Lest we forget YouTuber Logan Paul’s spectacularly distasteful video last year, in which he filmed himself and friends giggling as they came across a suicide victim in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. Although he was punished by the platform and forced to issue an apology (and a very staged suicide awareness video), Paul still runs an incredibly successful YouTube account – go figure.

Despite the recent controversy at Chernobyl following the eponymous HBO series, Sergii Ivanchuck, founder of Chernobyl tour company SoloEast, tells me that most people who visit are still respectful of the site. “We try to educate people and remind them that this is a place of disaster, and a sad place for Ukranians,” he reveals, “but it’s their moral choice – if they want to take a selfie, we can’t stop them.”

“There’s no respectful way to take a throwaway Instagram photo where there was great human suffering” – Karen Correia da Silva, social scientist

So, other than social capital, why are we fascinated with disaster sites in the first place? Correia da Silva sees our reasoning as two-fold, split into psychological and cultural intrigue. “On a psychological level,” she explains, “when people are frightened they release dopamine in their brain – so when people experience (dark tourism) together, they bond because they’re both creating dopamine at the same time.”

“While on a more cultural level, dark narratives (enable us to) discover a sense of our own humanity; people have the willingness to endure negative physical consumption for what they call positive conceptual consumption.”

In his 2013 essay Dark Tourism, Heterotopias and Post-Apocalyptic Places: The Case of Chernobyl, executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research Philip Stone writes that Chernobyl’s – and consequently other dark tourism sites’ – appeal lies in its “juxtapositions of the real and the familiar with the surreal and the alien”, enabling tourists “to consume not only a sense of ruinous beauty and bewilderment, but also a sense of anxiety and incomprehension in a petrified place that mirrors our own world.”

Over time, sites of tragedies become museum-like, encouraging visitors to reflect on the past in relation to how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. Representing a very specific moment eternally frozen in time, dark tourism locations act as an uncensored warning of, as Stone puts it, “the fragility of our modern world”.

Correia da Silva also regards rising interest in dark tourism as a direct result of our “pain free” times. As wellness takes over as the ‘new age religion’, we’re constantly pressured to look and feel our best. “Things like grieving or sadness are on the fringes,” Correia da Silva elaborates, “we’re not really allowed to feel those emotions in polite society. Because of that people are searching for what Foucault would call heterotopias (spaces regarded as ‘other’, often deemed sites of crisis).”

Although technically we actually are living in a time of crisis. With the world set to implode basically ASAP, you have to question why people are willing to ignore the impending threat of climate change while revelling in disasters of the past. “It’s a lot easier to consume something that you feel is already over,” Correia da Silva asserts, “something that’s not a pressing crisis. You can go to Chernobyl knowing it’s already happened – there’s nothing expected of you other than just consuming the fact that something terrible happened.”

“Climate change requires personal action and actual personal accountability”, Correia da Silva concludes. “People also want to avoid it because you can’t make a great Instagram post about the fact that we’re all awful.”

Despite our enthrallment with death and disaster sites stretching back to, you know, just 264 BC when the battle-to-the-death Roman Games reportedly began, the documentation of this intrigue is a relatively new phenomenon, and something that will undoubtedly continue to spark criticism for years to come. While it’s vital to keep the memory of those killed in Pompeii, Auschwitz, Chernobyl, 9/11, Grenfell Tower, and more alive, visitors should be mindful of their behaviour, and not forget that we’re also facing doom and gloom that could see us frozen forever going to town on ourselves. You’ve officially been warned.