Content warning: This post contains themes that may upset some readers.
Shows such as Netflix’s Dark Tourist and Instagram hashtags like #urbanexploration have helped to popularise the discovery of the shocking, extreme, and grittiest parts of history. When I knew I would be in Kraków this month, I felt compelled to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most recognisable of the Nazi regime’s concentration and extermination camps. Now a museum and memorial, Auschwitz is one of the most vivid reminders of the brutality that humankind can – and occasionally will – inflict upon its own species. Of the estimated 1.3 million prisoners who arrived at Auschwitz during the second World War, 1.1 million were murdered. Around 90% of them were Jewish. Auschwitz is not a happy place.
Before leaving for Kraków, I was unsure about using or even taking my camera. I wanted any images I shot at the site to be respectful and tasteful. I didn’t want to turn up and just shoot every aspect of the camp for the sake of documentation: that has been done so much already, by better photographers than me. I wanted to avoid being a ‘dark tourist’ for the sake of it. What did I want to say? And how could I say it respectfully?
First port of call for a sense of direction was the site’s rules for visitors. The document is updated occasionally, so for up-to-date guidelines visit the official site here. I also browsed the museum’s official Instagram account @AuschwitzMemorial, because they repost a lot of images that meet their standards of respect and taste. Earlier this year they tweeted a reminder to visitors to behave with respect, so I made an effort to honour the memory of those who died here.
Dutch photographer Roger Cremers turned his focus to the people visiting Auschwitz as part of his World War Two Today project. The result of Cremers’ Auschwitz series is a thoughtful consideration of contrast and irony, illuminating the interactions between visitors and this site of such extreme brutality. Historic parallels are acknowledged in shots of tourists cramming onto buses to enter the camp en masse, examining the barbed wire fences, and following guides into dark underground chambers.
You can check out the rest of Cremers’ series Tourist Behaviour in Auschwitz here.
We booked our tour weeks in advance (directly through the official website), and I spent some time exploring the ‘right’ ways to photograph the site of such horror. Nevertheless, I woke up on the morning of our visit feeling uneasy. I had slept restlessly the previous night, having failed to emotionally steel myself.
Trusting that my instincts would keep me from making any major photography faux pas, it was easier to decide what sort of shots I wanted. Although photography is only explicitly forbidden in two areas at Auschwitz – due to the nature of the exhibits – there were a few other exhibits I couldn’t bring myself to shoot.
I was caught off guard when I passed visitors posing with delight at an imposing guard tower. Inspired by Cremers, I quickly captured the moment, blurry as it is. Auschwitz is the last place on Earth I would imagine people smiling and posing, toes pointed forward, hand on hip.
This wasn’t a one-off. The infamous railway tracks at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) were littered with people posing for their #selfies, cheesing into their front cameras.
Earlier this year, the museum took to Twitter, urging visitors to treat the site with respect, and another Twitter user faced backlash when she tweeted a grinning photo at the camp.
I was also taken aback when I passed several visitors throughout the day who had made the decision to wear grey/blue striped shirts; an unfortunate reminder of the prisoner uniforms that are on display throughout the barracks and in photographs.
My main objective was to contextualise the atrocities that defined Auschwitz-Birkenau in the 1940s, with respect to its current memorial status; to capture the contrast between then and now. Portraits of victims fill the walls of their former prisons. One gas chamber still stands intact. Barbed wire, long rusted, encloses vast fields of collapsed prisoner blocks.
I hope I have done the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau justice in telling glimpses of their stories through my modern perspective. I have tried to explain the thoughts and feelings that directed my shots, but I want to let the images speak for themselves.
I stand inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz, the door wide open. There is nobody else in here with me; my tour group has moved on to the room housing the incinerators. I feel uneasy.
My mind physically cannot absorb the sheer number of victim photographs that line the corridor walls on both sides, and I want to acknowledge every one of them. A window in the wall shows into a preserved washroom, decorated with cheerless wall paintings. Each of the twelve faces reflected in the window represents around 100,000 others. I try to imagine what 1.1 million faces would look like, but I can’t.
Much of the Birkenau extermination camp is in ruins, destroyed by the Nazis as they tried to cover their crimes against humanity. In many sections, the brick chimneys, worn paths, and long-rusted barbed wire are the only reminders of what happened here. Gas chambers II-V were destroyed. The camp’s prisoners were liberated on January 27th, 1945, by Soviet forces.
On a practical note for readers: If you are thinking of visiting Auschwitz Museum, please remind yourself of the up-to-date visitors rules here, and consider booking directly through the official website. Our tour was around 70 zloty (~£15) each, with an official museum guide. The museum is directly accessible from Kraków by bus for about 15 zloty (~£4), whereas tour companies in Kraków charge upwards of 120 zloty for the day trip. Note that flash photography and tripods are forbidden absolutely everywhere, as is any sort of photography in Room 5 of Block 4, and in Block 11, as well as in security queues and visitor luggage storage areas.
For more information about the Holocaust (also known as Shoah), head over to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Centre. For further reading, check out memoirs such as First One In, Last One Out by Marilyn Shimon, a telling of her uncle’s true experience as prisoner 31321, and Photographing the Holocaust by Janina Struk for contemporary images from a range of sources.