The internet is a wonderful place. It gives us access to instant news, cheap flights and endless images of slow-motion kittens. Websites let us shop from home, access tiny e-tailers in far flung lands, all while offering cooking recipes and home improvement ideas.
However, there is a far darker side to the net, an underbelly where the light does not reach. This is where people film car crashes, torture animals for likes and, as of late, use photographs of death camps to make fashion statements. Step forward RedBubble.
An Australian clothing and homeware site, RedBubble prides itself on offering “original designs created by artists”. With a wide choice for men, women and children, its collections are decorated with upbeat images of lemon slices, cartoon figures, renaissance art and film posters.
Recently, however, it decided to use images of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi death camp, to decorate a mini skirt, cushion cover and tote bag. The site of the murder of an estimated 1.1 million men, women and children was deemed appropriate subject matter for the fast fashion arm of a lifestyle brand.
The grainy black and white photographs show a squat brick building flanked by chimneys, bleak railway lines disappearing into a low, wide building and a sign – in German – warning of an electrified fence.
The official twitter account of the Auschwitz Memorial was quick to condemn the action, describing the use of images of a place of “enormous human tragedy” as “disturbing and disrespectful”. RedBubble has since withdrawn the items from sale.
However, like Gucci’s recent Black Face debacle, H&M’s racist T-shirt last year, or Dolce & Gabbana trampling roughshod over thousands of years of Chinese culture, the question is: Who decided this was a good idea? With multiple layers of approvals generally required to get products to the manufacturing stage, why did no one notice this was a seriously poor choice?
Herein lies the rub. With most of the population now plugged in, our entire existence is being reduced to the lowest common denominator, becoming fodder for ‘likes’. These images of Auschwitz are uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has attended school, or watched a television, yet somehow they too have been swept up in the huge image library that is the internet. Once online, an image quickly loses any link to its original purpose and - as is becoming increasingly apparent - becomes available to anyone pressing the screengrab button. Shorn of its original author, and detached from its history, an image becomes just pixels, ready to be printed on any surface.
That pictures so deep rooted in human history have fallen prey to this cut-and-paste mentality is profoundly worrying. To misquote the adage, are we becoming those who know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing? In chasing the new, are we losing our own humanity? If this example set by RedBubble is anything to go by, then we seem to have truly lost our way.