I’ve always been fascinated by the macabre; it may have started with episodes of Quincy MD and Murder She Wrote as a kid, or watching Seven during a sleepover aged thirteen (still one of my favourite films even though it caused me nightmares for months!) or it may have been my mum’s obsession with the Titanic and the haunting images of death and destruction that filled our family bookshelves. As an adult this spilled over into an obsession with serial killers, crime documentaries and reading every resource I could about Jack The Ripper – but with the birth of Netflix and podcasts my fascination has been fed so much my husband now finds me ‘something with dead people’ to watch when I’m feeling low. And I’m not alone; the success of shows such as Making A Murderer prove our collective obsession with crime, death and disaster, but when does that interest turn into something more?
The recent success of Sky’s five part drama Chernobyl has apparently lead to a 40% increase in queries about visiting the site of the nuclear disaster, already a relatively popular ‘dark tourist’ destination. Yep, dark tourism is a thing. There’s a huge industry surrounding destinations associated with death and destruction – whether it’s the 9/11 memorial or the Japanese ‘suicide forest’, concentration camps or abandoned prisons, the site of Pompeii or simply museums that document torture devices, more of us have probably been part of it more than we realise. Even during my honeymoon to Bali I was taken to a graveyard where they leave bodies to decay before digging them up again for cremation, and honestly it stayed with me for weeks afterwards.
For me, there’s nothing wrong with expanding our understanding of humanity or being fascinated with behaviours we can’t quite comprehend; there’s nothing wrong with pushing ourselves in order to feel exhilarated, or wanting to visit places that feel a little dangerous – in the same way that many of us love a rollercoaster or take pleasure from jumping out of planes (totally not my bag though.) But the fundamental concern has to be one of respect: for those impacted by the events, individual or disaster. We have to remember for all our fascination with death and destruction, that there are real people involved – and they deserve to be remembered in a respectful and honorable way.
You’ve probably seen the hoo-hah surrounding a number of influencers visiting the site of the Chernobyl disaster since the airing of the hugely popular drama series that we’ve all been talking about (it’s well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already.) Screengrabs of Instagram posts have been doing the rounds, showing beautiful young girls posing with the backdrop of the Ukrainian power plant and surrounding abandoned Pripyat village. Unsurprisingly the commentary has been focused on the vacuousness of our industry, how we’re all so self-obsessed and have no respect when taking pictures, but actually I think the conversation needs to be about something different entirely.
Nobody is saying that posing in your knickers and a hazmat suit on the site of so much death and suffering is in any way appropriate or justifiable (what was she thinking?) but as for the other dark tourists and ‘influencers’ sharing stories with their audience I really don’t understand the issue – as long as the focus is very much on respectful education, rather than simply an edgy backdrop for a photoshoot. Julia Baessler recently spent two days exploring the site of the disaster and the surrounding village, documenting her trip via Instagram; I watched the entire thing utterly fascinated at this unique insight into the disaster and thought she was incredibly respectful, informative and aware of the position she was in. Even though I’d watched the drama, seen the documentaries and googled my way through everything I could find, her insight was truly haunting and brought a real human element to everything I’d ever known.
However her content was (unsurprisingly) shared out of context and garnered a huge amount of criticism online, so much so that she’s now taken down her images. (You can still watch her highlighted stories.) To me, this is problematic; it’s symptomatic of the society in which we live, where women need to stay in their lane and can only be one thing or the next. It’s not possible for us to be beautiful and intelligent, or interested in Disney and physics, wear makeup and be a feminist, talk about fashion and important political issues – we have to pick one thing and stick to it, for fear of confusing the wider world about the role we supposedly fill. Because apparently people need to know where to ‘file’ us.
Julia was dressed modestly head to toe in black, with chunky boots and jeans (and in other pictures a full-on hazmat suit) but of course she was criticised for being too glamorous / posing too hard / daring to curl her hair or wear makeup. My question is this: if a middle aged man was dressed in the same way, stood in the same pose and took the same picture, would he be on the receiving end of such criticism? If the answer is no, it’s not about the photo – it’s all about the person within it and our accompanying perceptions.
I’ve been told numerous times over the years that I should ‘stick to talking about makeup’ rather than trying to use my platforms to encourage discussion, raise awareness of issues I’m passionate about or just converse with people about what’s going on in the world. I know many other intelligent, multi-faceted women who have experienced the same. In my opinion, what Julia (and many other content creators on many other occasions) experienced is no different; just because she happens to be young and beautiful, she’s not allowed to want to share anything other than a picture of her in a bikini – and she certainly can’t share her insight and opinion on anything as serious as a nuclear disaster.
The conversation the surrounds our industry is one that mainly labels us self-obsessed, but when we do try to share more insightful opinions or experiences we still get shut down as the same; women content creators, in particular, just can’t win.
No matter what the media says, no matter how many Daily Fail commenters say otherwise, our industry is thriving and won’t be going anywhere soon; we’re storytellers, sharing our lives, experiences and opinions in a way that engages the communities we’ve built around us. How we tell that story is down to us, as long as it’s respectful. Unfortunately there are examples of content creators sharing stories in unacceptable and unethical ways (Logan Paul I’m looking at you,) and I’m sure we’ll experience many more morally questionable attempts to push boundaries, but fundamentally our generation of influencers are trying to make a real difference – and it’s working.
Whether it’s raising awareness of mental health, discussing male suicide, clamping down on plastic, encouraging us to eat less meat, supporting charities in the fight against disease or donating to local food banks, we’re on it. Showing the very human side to a disaster with a huge human cost is only an extension of that, and I for one am thankful that young women such as Julia are using their platforms for more than just selling another bikini.
What are your thoughts on dark tourism, content creators and storytelling?
(BTW, Albertine has got a great post on this topic too HERE so make sure you give it a read.)
PS. These pictures have nothing to do with Chernobyl; I just looked cute, and that’s what I’m here for right? (EYE ROLL)