The selfie has become as ubiquitous as McDonalds – you can’t travel anywhere without seeing someone taking a selfie or flailing around with a selfie stick. Selfies can be fun and result in some of the most hilarious souvenirs from a trip, as long as you’re following proper selfie etiquette. But there are a few places where you shouldn’t take a selfie no matter what, places where cheesy grins plastered across your face and a half dozen of your friend’s faces just don’t make sense.
1. Concentration camps and Holocaust memorials
Visiting Dachau last fall, I was shocked to see a couple taking a selfie just inside the gate marked Arbeit macht frei. It felt not only disrespectful but out of place – I couldn’t wrap my mind around the need for a smiling selfie in such a place.
Holocaust memorials and concentration camps preserve a tragic history that is hard to understand, even as you experience it firsthand. Photography may help you process it, but a selfie is the wrong shot.
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2. The 9/11 Memorial
As with concentration camps, the 9/11 Memorial is a somber reminder of lives lost. On a sweltering hot morning last July, I was walking through lower Manhattan and decided to walk by the waterfalls at the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers. I was confronted by an uncountable number of selfie sticks and couples taking selfies around the memorial. Laughing, smiling as they shot the photos, I wondered how I’d feel if I’d lost someone that day.
Save the selfies for Times Square or Central Park and take regular photographs if you feel the need to preserve the memory of seeing the 9/11 Memorial.
3. Around animals
Unless you’re a) far away from the animal, b) not coming into contact with it, c) have glass between it and you, and d) not in danger of endangering the animal or yourself…stop taking animal selfies.
On a trip to Kauai, I was snorkelling in shallow waters when I spotted a sea turtle. Soon, a group gathered and no fewer than six GoPro cameras and waterproof cellphone cases were shoved in the turtle’s face. Neon fins in my face obscured my view of the creature, but I noticed the turtle was surrounded and, as he turned round and round for an escape, kept coming closer to shore. Luckily, people seemed to get bored and, with the tide moving in, the turtle was able to swim back to deeper depths.
In places like Australia, the Quokka selfie trend is, so far, a no harm, no foul situation. If you can get in the shot with the animal, great. If not, leave it alone. But more and more locations are placing bans and/or fines on people that attempt to take a selfie with wildlife. That’s because selfie-hungry tourists are endangering animals and themselves in the name of a vacation memento. It’s becoming a worldwide epidemic, with tourists killing a dolphin in Argentina in the name of a photo, a tourist pulling a swan by its wing and killing it in Macedonia, tourists manhandling peacocks and shocking them to death in Thailand, and a man in Florida dragging a shark out of the water by its tail, which resulted in its death.
4. While on the move
Attempting a selfie on the move may not seem like the worst idea, but it’s another story when you whack into someone else because you’re not paying attention. Generally, stopping, looking to see who is around you, and stepping out of the way is a good idea, particularly in busy areas. Photos of railway tracks, beyond being a photo cliche, are taking the lives of tourists looking for the perfect shot. And it seems obvious to not take a selfie while driving, but a reminder can’t hurt. If you need that epic footage of your travel experiences, have someone in a safe position do the filming. The reverse of this is also true: if someone else is on the move, stay out of their way.
5. Edges of mountains, cliffs, and other death-defying locales
Showing off beautiful views is practically an Instagram must, especially if a lot of effort went into reaching said vista. But paying attention to where you are in relation to the edge of a cliff or mountain is key, particularly after a gruelling hike when you’re happy just to have made it. Standing a little further away from the edge than you think necessary is smart. And if you think it’s just young kids endangering themselves in the name of look-what-I-did glory, think again. Last year at the Grand Canyon, I saw countless visitors, most over the age of 50, taking close-to-the-edge selfies, many times with unwieldy iPads. It may seem like common sense, but as people keep dying, it’s a sobering reminder to think before snapping.
While most people go to cemeteries to visit loved ones, some cemeteries attract tourists coming to visit graves of those they don’t necessarily know, but wish to pay their respects nonetheless. Think: Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea.
Stone rubbing is common for those that want to remember a family member or friend, and it seems maybe a selfie has taken the place of this more respectful medium. On a recent visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial above Omaha Beach in France, a father moved his two young girls around the marble crosses to line up the perfect shot with beach in the background. The effect was a bit bizarre and will be even more so if it ends up on the family holiday card.
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7. Nude beaches
In Europe, it’s hard to find beaches where people won’t be topless. When visiting Menorca, nearly everyone I saw on every beach was jumping in suit-less even though the water was about as warm as a cooler full of ice. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t take photos of beautiful beaches, but be respectful of sunbathers and swimmers; just because they’re swimming nude doesn’t mean they’re OK being an unsuspecting photo bomber in your selfie.
Basically a good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t want the photo taken of you, don’t take the photo of someone else. You can almost always move to a spot that includes the backdrop you want without disturbing other travellers.
8. Holy sites
Churches, mosques, temples, and other sacred spots are often some of the most ornately decorated places. Snapping a photo is fine—so long as there are no signs telling you otherwise. However, a selfie crosses the normal photo snapping line. Respect the revered grounds, whether or not the structure is representative of a faith you follow; locals may be trying to actually use the space for reflection or prayer. And remember: the fact that someone else is taking a selfie isn’t a good justification for you to follow suit – something that’s easy to forget in crowded places like Notre Dame in Paris. Take in the interior, then snap the selfie outside.
Museums around the world – including the National Gallery in London, the Forbidden City in Beijing, and many of the major museums in New York (MoMa, the Met, the Frick, Guggenheim) – have banned selfie sticks. While many tourists may have the best intentions with these devices, it’s easy to forget where your personal space ends and another person’s begins. And in crowded tourist areas, this problem only gets worse.
While the Palace of Versailles has also banned the selfie stick, the Louvre has yet to jump on board. And even if they do, there’s no telling when the tide of regular, non-stick selfies will ebb, in particular in front of the Mona Lisa. Enjoy the art, and let other people enjoy the art, by actually looking at it – and not through the lens of the camera.