Last week, Israeli satirist Shahak Shapira launched yolocaust.de, a website chronicling photographs taken at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. These photos, collected by Shapira from social media sites such as Instagram, depict visitors at the memorial, their behavior ranging from irreverent to idiotic, and their captions, too. In one photo, a man sits cross-legged juggling six pink balls. “What an incredible place,” reads his emoji-enhanced caption. In another, a couple frame a selfie within a selfie via selfie-stick.
Hover the mouse over these images and a striking change takes place: the smooth, block-grey pillars of the memorial disappear, replaced by harrowing, monochrome vistas of the Holocaust. Skeletal men in concentration camps on the precipice of death, corpses tossed into a pit. Background transformed, the foreground remains the same except for the removal of color. The memorial visitors are frozen in their poses, implicated by black and white, unmoved by the horrors behind them.
It’s easy to be startled by the shocking contrast, and impressed by the technical achievement, but Yolocaust is a sneering and deeply flawed project. Firstly, there’s the ethical question of whether Shapira should have used photographs without the photographers’ permission—stating those depicted can request to be removed from the site is not the same thing. (To make the request, an email to firstname.lastname@example.org will suffice). This email address is the clearest sign of Shapria’s intention to humiliate the individuals in the photographs.
The Yolocaust site currently displays only three photographs, whereas originally there were at least a dozen. Ten thousand Facebook shares and 2,500 retweets later, international media coverage ensures that photographs no longer on Yolocaust are enshrined elsewhere on the internet.
Virtual pillory can cause severe ramifications in reality. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed shows that careers are ruined and lives hamstrung by internet shaming. Regardless of how Yolocaust plays out in the real lives of its subjects, the visual power of Shapira’s juxtapositions is undeniable. Conflating the overtly carefree of today with the dead and dying of Nazi genocide is shocking to see, a sensory sucker punch by way of skittish cursor. It’s an unshakable connotation. Yolocaust is deliberately distressing.
Shapira’s intention was to shock, and, in an interview with the BBC, he said, “If you’re asking me is this right or wrong, then that’s a good thing. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, just having the debate is good.” The responsibility to consider right and wrong is incumbent on Shapira since Yolocaust casts moral judgment on its subjects, although such judgment is not stated in words.
Through stark visual association, Shapira blames his subjects. The see-saw effect, from now to then to now, strongly implies those depicted would go along with a genocide because they’re so unfeeling and unthinking, or worse, they’d actively be a part of it: an impossibly hypothetical judgment that can’t be proven from these photographs, no matter how ill-advised. If this wasn’t Shapira’s intention then his message is opaque. More likely, given Shapira’s Q&A and BBC interview, is that he doesn’t have a message, which is worse. Reducing genocide to a meme strips it of its significance. The combination of “YOLO”, a now discarded internet acroynym, which stands for You Only Live Once, with the word ‘Holocaust’ leads us no closer to a point. It’s just a pun that fits.
There’s a notable absence from Yolocaust: Nazis, the people who perpetrated the crimes depicted. Soldiers are identifiable in three of the twelve photographs, yet not with much precision, and there’s no sign of the swastika nor the Nazi hierarchy. Symbols matter, for good or for ill, and their omission can be equally as meaningful. This downplaying of Nazis, one may assume, was unintentional, yet it’s quite revealing of Shapira’s skewed priorities; he doesn’t visually acknowledge the cause for a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Clambering over the memorial despite the rules is obviously not commendable. One caption featured on Yolocaust, now removed, states, “Jumping on dead Jews.” But the deficiencies of the people in the photographs doesn’t redeem Shapira’s work. It’s finger-wagging, belittling art that refuses to consider shared culpability, or reflect on the part of the artist. The sly detached tone of his Q&A reads as, “Hey either take me as a principled guy or don’t, whichever suits me best.”
Does Yolocaust leave room for the future education or embrace of the individuals featured? No. It also allows the audience, most of whom won’t have juggled in the Holocaust Memorial, to feel good about themselves, looking down from a pedestal that doesn’t mean anything. That’s what makes it’s so sharable.
How or what the monument represents is subject to interpretation, as Shapira alludes to in his Q&A, although its architect, Peter Eisenman, has interpreted Shapira’s Yolocaust as “terrible.”
The name of the memorial ensures it is inextricable from the Holocaust and its horrors, even if literal representation of the genocide is lacking. Having been there, and, having taken photos there, it seems like a place that encourages interaction as well as reflection. You walk through it and explore it. It’s not a statue of a Holocaust survivor, for example, it’s more ambiguous than that (and it’s been criticized in some quarters for that ambiguity). Arguably, it’s more disrespectful taking selfies at concentration camps, but a solemnity olympics is beside the point. Conversely, by the logic ventured in Yolocaust, is Shapira most impressed by those who are the saddest around memorial sites?
Indirectly, it does raise the question, how important is our conduct around memorials like this one? Theoretically, it’s possible to visit the memorial and internally deny the Holocaust ever happened, all the while appearing perfectly respectful. Would it be wrong to laugh or feel happy inside the memorial? Memory and remembering can take many forms. Without policing emotions in the vein of Yolocaust, it’s surely best to put on the appearance of paying respect in case anyone’s present who’s been directly affected.
Yet the limitations of outward respect should also be acknowledged. Whenever a disaster occurs, manmade or otherwise, contemporary politicians are reflexive in expressing condolences—in America, they come in the form of “thoughts and prayers.” At times there is little else to be done, at others there is much to be done, and it isn’t. In a context entirely different from, and unconnected to the Holocaust, certain American politicians use outward civility and humility as a deliberate obstacle to enacting gun control reforms. Donald Trump has claimed, “No one has more respect for women than I do,” though his private conduct belies the statement, and his recent political actions do, too. External posturing can mask shady intentions and pernicious actions. For another example, look no further than Yolocaust.
If Yolocaust is simply a critique of social media—tittering at the depths people sink to for a few likes—it’s extremely hypocritical. This entire project is pure clickbait; no-subtlety-internet-please-look-at-me. It’s so hypocritical it’s almost funny. Any comedic value is undercut by the realization that the people Shapira mocks in Yolocaust didn’t manipulate photographs of Holocaust victims for increased social media metrics. He did.