Appropriate Photography Behavior at Memorials

There are places that can sober anyone when their names are spoken. Gettysburg. Verdun. Normandy. Auschwitz. Iwo Jima. The poppy fields outside of Flanders. The Highland Clearances Memorial. The USS Arizona. The Vietnam Wall. These places all contain commemorations of some of the most horrific evils that men can inflict upon each other. That makes theses places that are somber, deserving of respect, and usually very quiet. Having visited several of these places, I can tell you that people fall silent upon entering them. Voices are kept to a hushed tone and only used at need.

Photography is common at many of these places and, until recently, photographers or visitors who brought cameras were careful to engage in photography in a manner that was respectful and not disruptive or discounting of the sobriety of the site. However, in recent days, “selfies” and other inappropriate photography techniques have begun to crop up at these places. Therefore, we have a few tips for anyone considering visiting one of these sites or one similar in order to help them avoid committing a grave faux pas.

1) Photography isn’t always allowed — Some sites don’t allow photography at all or only allow it in specific areas out of respect for the memorial and for the departed. Don’t break this rule even with your mobile phone. Sometimes the restriction on photography is done to encourage crowd flow and to keep people moving through the memorial instead of letting them clump up. Sometimes it’s done to protect the area as repeated flashes can cause damage to paintings over the years.

2) Dress comfortably but appropriately — Some famous sites — especially in Europe — will not allow visitors in who are dressed inappropriately. Notre Dame de Paris will turn visitors away if they are wearing tank-tops, short shorts, mini-skirts, crude t-shirts, or other attire deemed inappropriate for a grand cathedral. Make certain you check to see if there is a dress code and, even if there is not, you dress appropriately. Tennis shoes are generally acceptable — especially if you’re going to be walking — and heels are generally forbidden for the damage they can do to the floor.

3) Respect the quiet of the place and the other visitors — It may sound a bit crazy but when you enter a place like Gettysburg, the Memorial cemetery at Vicksburg, or the memorial for the USS Arizona, you can feel the weight of the years pressing on you. It makes you quiet and reflective. Respect that. Where photography is allowed, feel free to take photos. However, do so in a manner that doesn’t make light of the site itself and doesn’t cause problems for other visitors.

4) Pay attention to the signs — Signs aren’t always just put up to tell you where to go or to explain what happened at a particular part of the site. Sometimes they’re up to warn you about a potential danger such as the signs on the beaches at Normandy that warn of treacherous footing or tidal activities. Pay attention to what they say and if they tell you not to enter or pass beyond a certain point, don’t ignore it even if it would be a great place to stand and get a photograph. That’s a good way to fall into a sinkhole in some places.

5) If you’re uncertain as to whether or not something would be appropriate, don’t do it — You’ll never hear laughter on the USS Arizona or when you pass beyond the gates at Dachau or Auschwitz. Levity has no place when you’re looking down at the rows of headstones in Arlington, VA or Normandy, France. Watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier isn’t a time to engage in horseplay or to try to get close for snapping a few photos.

6) Take a selfie at a memorial site and post it online only if you want to look really, spectacularly stupid and have it haunt you for years — The teenage girl whose selfie at Auschwitz set off an online firestorm might not regret it and might think she did nothing wrong now but give her ten years. She’ll be embarrassed to have done it and her “fame” for it will probably cost her down the road. People who do the same at other memorials — the 9/11 memorial, Normandy, Arlington, and more — will look back and wonder what they were thinking to engage in such self-centered and silly antics at a place where the focus of their thoughts (and their cameras) should not have been on them but on the event that made the site a memorial in the first place.

If you’re going to visit a major historical site, it would be a good idea for you to understand the importance of that site and to treat it appropriately. Otherwise, the photos you take there today may not make treasured keepsakes but instead could become testaments to shame later on down the road.

— da Bird