Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bridging photography and history

Judith Cohen is director of the photo archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This month she delivered a lecture at SAIS Europe bridging photography and history: "Reimagining the Holocaust: Jewish Ghetto Photographers".

We all know the old adage, “seeing is believing,” but when studying photographs, particularly photographs of the Holocaust, how can we be sure that what we see and hence believe is in fact an accurate portrayal of reality?

The fact is that all photographs are double crops -- a photographer not only decides what to include in the frame of his photographs, cropping out everything else around him, but he or she also makes a crop in time. Every photograph captures a unique moment without a before or after and hence leaves out often important context which can better explain what is happening.

Salo Haar takes his son Roman sledding in the
Rzeszow ghetto, 1941; the father was killed one year later.
 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy of Roman Haar
If this is true of everyday photos, how much more true is it of photographs taken by members of the German Propaganda Companies (PK), commissioned for the purpose of documenting the Nazi world view.

The vast majority of surviving Holocaust photographs were taken by German photographers, and therefore often unknowingly we imagine the Holocaust through Nazi eyes. Yet there also exists a smaller and lesser known corpus of photographs taken by Jewish photographers which present a very different view of the Nazi ghettos.

These photographs preserve events the Nazis did not record to include everyday Jewish family life, resistance activities and certain atrocities; they depict both joy and anguish. Many of these photos appear at first glance fairly benign, such as a photo of a father and son going sledding. The extreme pathos lies in the extended caption which explains that the father was killed one year later.

For this reason, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is working not only to collect these private photographs but also the stories behind them. We engage in a rush against time to acquire as much information as possible while survivors are still alive so that we can preserve and present as complete a picture of the Holocaust as possible.

Judith Cohen

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