Artsy photos in aesthetic locations have become a necessity for those who hope to maintain polished social media feeds. From colorful walls to museum exhibits, like the Angel Wings mural on U Street or the Kusama exhibit in the Hirshhorn Museum, visually appealing backgrounds have become a focus on social media.
A few weeks ago I was walking back from my internship, located in the heart of the Ground Zero area in New York City’s financial district, when I noticed a girl getting her photo taken in front of one of the reflecting pools where the Twin Towers once stood. The girl flashed a big smile and posed with her legs outstretched as if she was getting her photo taken while tanning on the beach or relaxing in Central Park. The idea that someone could think it was appropriate to take a photo to maintain a social media aesthetic at the site of a national tragedy was mind-boggling to me.
This girl probably wasn’t being intentionally insensitive and most likely all she wanted was a postable picture in a beautiful area. But some of the public memorials that may be Instagram worthy aren’t meant to be backdrops for photo shoots. The desire for a curated social media feed should not override the responsibility of giving memorials, like the 9/11 reflecting pools, the respect they deserve.
Admittedly, the line dividing which public memorials are acceptable backdrops for trendy social media posts and which aren’t can be complicated. Although most people probably have a unanimous opinion about Ground Zero because of how traumatic and relatively recent 9/11 was, other memorials are less clear. Ninety-seven percent of people today remember where they were when they first heard the news about the Twin Towers, according to a poll from Pew Research. This statistic evidences that people still feel the effects of the attack. But that line becomes a little hazier when it comes to places like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the World War II Memorial in D.C. For example, people love to take photos beside their state’s pillar at the World War II Memorial, which is hardly ever considered disrespectful. Some of this has to do with timeliness, or feeling connected to an event because you either experienced it or were somehow affected by its consequences. There’s also a difference between a space where people lost their lives as opposed to a memorial commemorating an incident in a different location than where it actually took place.
Apart from the timeliness and location of memorials, their relevance can determine if they’re appropriate places for social media posts. Understandably, people behave differently at the memorials they feel a close connection to. I was alarmed by the girl taking a made-for-Instagram photo at the reflecting pool because her behavior was noticeably different than that of most visitors who feel a connection to the 9/11 Memorial. If you visit Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, you’ll also be in a place where people died, but because people in America today generally don’t feel a personal connection to the Civil War, the battlefield will feel more like a historical landmark than a memorial to the fallen soldiers. This is very different from the 9/11 Memorial, where the reality that some children, as young as 16, have grown up motherless or fatherless as a direct result of 9/11 is still close to home for many.
Some might suggest changing the photo policy at certain memorials, but a restriction on taking pictures isn’t the right solution. Such a policy would be difficult to enforce considering that the 9/11 reflecting pools are in the middle of a photogenic park that people understandably want to capture. More importantly, the 9/11 Memorial is a beautiful tribute to those that lost their lives, and people should feel encouraged to share it with their social media followers who may not have the opportunity to experience the powerful site for themselves. But visitors who plan to post about the memorial on Facebook, Instagram or any other medium should do so in a way that is respectful and acknowledges the gravity of the site.
The truth is that the issue regarding social media moments at memorials isn’t black and white. There aren’t set guidelines for knowing which memorials are appropriate on social media and which aren’t. It’s possible that the girl I saw at the reflecting pool that day could have been a foreign tourist who didn’t realize what used to stand in the place of those reflecting pools, and if so, it would seem unfair to expect her to understand unspoken social media guidelines.
But if you choose to post a photo of a memorial on social media, make sure the post is about the memorial and not about how good you look or the cute outfit you want to showcase. If you want to take a picture like that, do it in front of one of those colorful walls or artsy museum exhibits, but not in a place honoring American sacrifice and loss.
Natalie Prieb, a sophomore majoring in english and creative writing, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.