Beirut port explosion ‘disaster selfies’ on Instagram spark controversy

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Social media users have come under fire for posing in front of the site of the devastating Beirut blast as critics call out the latest example of “disaster tourism.”

The August 4 Beirut explosion killed as many as 220 people, injured 7,000 others, and destroyed 10,000 buildings. Yet recent posts on Instagram show people posing in front of the site of the explosion, which is a crime scene as authorities investigate the cause of the blast.

The posts have prompted criticism online, with Twitter user Rami Chakroun suggesting that taking a selfie in front of the port is the “last thing” visitors to Beirut should be thinking about.

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Another user pointed out that social media users had been posting selfies in front of the ruined site at a time at which people were still missing from the blast, potentially trapped under the wreckage.

However, others took a different approach, with a local professor highlighting the selfie as a creative form of mourning.

“The Lebanese people realized that the explosion was so powerful, it shattered even time: before and after. Even if few only immortalize themselves on the bloody divide by a selfie or a photograph, many passed by silently bidding farewell to a Lebanon that, despite its self destructive tendencies, always exhibited an immortal, joyful and victorious spirit,” said Nadim Mohsen, Philosophy and Cultural Studies Professor at the Lebanese American University.

“Some choose to even smile while taking a selfie with the background of death and chaos. Mourning oneself could be surprisingly creative,” he told Al Arabiya English.

Read more: After explosion, Lebanese say ‘Beirut is not for sale’ to corrupt developers

Another researcher suggested that the taking of selfies was a practice associated with trauma.

“What really happened to the Lebanese after the port’s blast is a typical case of ‘Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder’. People differ in their reactions to similar situations. Some need to assure themselves that: ‘it wasn’t me who died there’, which is this very ambivalent in itself, because it also means: ‘It could have been me,” said Paula El Khoury, a research associate at Centre d'analyse et d'intervention sociologiques in Paris.

“The whimsical, light-hearted and eccentric behavior in the photos near the blast, which appeared as profoundly offending and insensitive, are nonetheless the most expressive of this ambivalence. Not only I am still alive but I am ‘beautiful,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘living and loving’ too. It denotes an act of twisting the meaning of the tragedy. It is clearly a ‘deviant’ way to defy death and insecurity, more like a child facing danger alone, either he faints, or he goes forward in a defiant manner. For years now, Lebanese are not anymore allowed to faint,” she told Al Arabiya English.

Read more: Beirut explosion: Children in Lebanon suffer from trauma after deadly blast

Has Beirut become the latest ‘disaster tourism’ destination?

The practice of taking photographs at scenes of disaster or tragedy is not new with Beirut.

According to Reuters, the success of a miniseries examining the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Russia, has driven up the number of tourists wanting to see the plant and the ghostly abandoned town, often documenting their visit online.

One Chernobyl tour agency reported a 40 percent rise in trip bookings since the series, made by HBO, which launched in May and has attracted outstanding reviews. Its landmarks now feature in the background of pictures on Instagram.

Yasmin Ibrahim, a media expert from Queen Mary University, UK, describes this form of “disaster selfie” as a “disconcerting element of self-voyeurism in the post-disaster space.”

While selfies are increasingly a feature of tourism to disaster or tragic sites, travelers have other opportunities to immerse themselves in unpleasant experiences. For example, Vietnam’s Cu Chi tunnels used during the Vietnam War are now a well-known “dark tourism” spot, with visitors invited to crawl around inside, as well as using AK47s, the weapon of the choice for the Viet Cong army, on the ground above.

Back in Lebanon, with the site of Beirut port still circulating widely online almost a month after the tragedy, the debate over disaster selfies in the city – and their ethics – seems unlikely to go away.

The destroyed silo sits in rubble and debris after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)
The destroyed silo sits in rubble and debris after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)

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