Public reactions during times of tragedy typically fall somewhere along the spectrum of human decency — sensitivity, sympathy and respect. Recently, however, those attitudes were inexplicably lost on seven women in New York City.
The young women, presumably friends, were out for the night in New York City, snapping smiling photos of themselves with a selfie stick. Not too bad, right?
The backdrop very clearly features what should have no place in a selfie: ambulances, police vehicles, and, all the way in the back, a raging fire. That's because the women situated themselves in front of the scene of Thursday's massive explosion in Manhattan's East Village, which killed two people and injured 25 more, demolished three buildings and left dozens of people homeless.
At the time of the selfie, the two men who lost their lives were still missing. Emergency workers were working around the clock to clear the rubble. While residents and businesses were setting up GoFundMe pages, holding fundraisers and offering free services to those in need, these women inexplicably decided to throw human decency to the wind and pose for photographs in front of the site of a tragedy.
The photo shoot immediately drew outrage, and even landed on the cover of the New York Post with the caption, "Village Idiots."
Reactions on Twitter were similarly harsh:
One Instagram user even "paid tribute" to the women in a piece of artwork. "I knew immediately that I had to immortalize these jackasses, the way they look to those of us who actually live in and love this city," the caption reads.
Unfortunately, this is part of a larger trend. Last July, a teenager named Breanna Mitchell found herself in a similar situation when she tweeted a smiling selfie taken at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
She was immediately eviscerated, and while her explanation — that she took the photo in celebration of her father, who died the year before — was deemed reasonable by some, her name still comes up when one Googles "inappropriate selfies."
But her behavior wasn't isolated. A New Yorker story published just days after Breanna's original tweet recounted the bizarre ritual of concentration camp selfies, which became so popular that one individual began documenting them on a since-deleted Facebook page called "With My Besties In Auschwitz."
Meanwhile, a Tumblr page called "Selfies at Funerals" began in 2013 to catalog photos of teens at funerals, and culminated later that year with a photo of President Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. A similarly themed Tumblr page, "Selfies at Serious Places," compiles photos of people at generally somber locations like the Vietnam War Memorial and Pearl Harbor.
The intersection of grief and social media: Tragedies have a tendency to bring out extreme reactions — empathy, grief, anger — in all of us. Their intensity often triggers, or even necessitates, an equally acute outpouring of emotion. Unfortunately, this can sometimes include insensitivity or plain old stupidity — a trait made worse by widespread access to social media.
Our ability to broadcast any and every facet of our lives, even the crass and grotesquely insensitive, has led to a rash of inappropriate selfie-taking incidents, and the East Village Seven are yet another example of this.
Yet as Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post argues, there can be more nuance to the selfie debate than may first appear. "While self-portraits are understood by many to be little more than a flagrant show of narcissism or a plea for attention, they may mean something different to the taker herself," she wrote in July. "It's less a matter of self-glorification than self-documentation — 'I was here.' 'This is who I was that day.' 'This happened.'"
While the self-documentation angle certainly rings true, the issue of context is arguably more important. Breanna Mitchell, about whom Dewey was writing, had every right to document her experience, as did the women in the East Village. But the way they chose to go about it completely ignored the magnitude of their surroundings, and put a truly bizarre spin — the smiling, the complete lack of self-awareness — on what, for many families, was an unimaginable tragedy.
In other words, it's not so much the act of taking a selfie that's so offensive, but rather the way in which it was carried out. If you're going to give the camera a toothy smile in front of what is essentially a burial site, as the women in the East Village did, you're probably not going to draw much approval.