Photo shoot at National Holocaust Monument prompts outcry

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An Ottawa photographer’s modelling shoot at the National Holocaust Monument is prompting questions about what is appropriate behaviour at such a hallowed site.

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Photographer Michael Dupe posted four photos on his Instagram account of a young woman that used the stark concrete walls and sharp angles and shadows of the monument to create a dramatic background.

The photos prompted a harsh response on social media. One commenter called it disrespectful, saying “many members of the Jewish community are rightfully angry…”

Richard Marceau, author of a book on Quebec Jews, tweeted his own rebuke: “You really think this photo shoot is appropriate for a Monument dedicated to the memory of 6,000,000 #Jews killed during the #Holocaust?”

In his own tweet Wednesday night, Hull-Aylmer MP Greg Fergus called the shoot “totally inappropriate.”

“I’m stunned by the lack of common sense of this photographer (and all those involved, too),” Fergus wrote.

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By Thursday morning, Dupe appeared to have deleted the post, but not before posting his own responses to some of the criticism.

“If taking a photo with grey walls as a backdrop is a crime, lock me up,” he said, pointing out that there were no plaques or anything else in the photos identifying the site as the Holocaust monument.

“If you don’t want people shooting at certain walls in the city, you should put on a reflective vest, get a whistle and go stand in front of them year round.”

The National Holocaust Monument opened in 2017 on LeBreton Flats, its soaring concrete walls and peaks forming a Star of David when seen from above. Some surfaces have enormous, monochromatic photos of Holocaust sites by Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky.

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Its striking Brutalist architecture has caught the eye of other photographers too. In 2018, an unauthorized fashion shoot drew similar backlash.

Justin Van Leeuwen, a professional photographer who runs a Facebook page for the photo community, said the latest controversy brings up an interesting debate about public space.

“It’s not illegal. And I don’t think it should be, because then you have to have enforcement and that’s something we don’t want,” Van Leeuwen said. “This is society doing its own enforcement.”

Van Leeuwen said that while Ottawa has many examples of Brutalist architecture so alluring to photographers, they aren’t allowed to shoot there.

“You can’t go take a photo at Place du Portage because security will kick you off,” he said.

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Van Leeuwen says he’s seen other photographers use the Holocaust monument without criticism and others shoot at the nearby Royal Canadian Navy Monument on the Ottawa River.

“If it’s not OK at the Holocaust memorial, is it OK to do it there? What about a selfie (at the Holocaust monument)? Is that OK? Is it OK to post it on Instagram?” he asked.

“The mere fact that we are engaging in the space is important and part of the memory it’s supposed to imbue. As a creative, you want to use what you see. The only thing holding you back is your moral sense.”

Van Leeuwen thinks it was Dupe’s initial pushback against critics that made the issue blow up.

Mina Cohn, director of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship, said the monument is an important part of remembering and reflecting on the six million Jews murdered by Nazis during the Second World War. It’s not the place for a photoshoot, she said.

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“It shows a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. It’s just common sense that you shouldn’t do that,” Cohn said.

While Cohn wants to see people visiting the memorial space, “I don’t think they were there to learn about the Holocaust.”

In an email exchange Thursday morning, Dupe said he had taken down the photos and won’t use the monument again for his photography.

“That’s why the 4 photos have been taken down for my personal Instagram account. I should not have done portrait photography at a memorial,” Dupe said.

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