I want to pull a particular point out of some of my research on ‘atrocity’ images. That is, that a photograph always have a multiplicity of interpretations – and a multiplicity of ways of being created.
Photographic history is littered with attempts to make it a perfect representation of reality (William Henry Fox-Talbot), art (Edward Steichen), objective truth (Walker Evans) and so on. There is a history of creating neat boxes into which photography can fall.
As I noted in a recent post on Auschwitz, Georges Didi-Huberman, in Images in Spite of All, discusses a sequence of four photographs taken in 1944 by Alex, a Jewish member of the Sonderkommando, with the help of other prisoners (header). The images show the victim’s last hour. It is an extraordinary book about appalling times, and Didi-Huberman derives profound philosophical learning from the images. One point particularly appropriate here is his conclusion that an image is not ‘either/or’ (my words) when it comes to depicting history and aestheticising the scene.
Even the simple act of framing a scene of atrocity is an aesthetic strategy.
To quote Wolfgang Brückle in his review of Didi-Huberman’s book:
‘If, as he claims, these images form “one of the last gestures of humanity,” ignoring them may indeed become a posthumous act of cruelty against the victims. If his opponents are right, however, only art can compensate for a gap in our historical understanding that visual documentation, these photographs included, cannot bridge. This antagonism is at the core of the debate on Didi-Huberman’s approach’.
Susan Sontag famously (and partially) changed her mind on atrocity photography, yet somehow continued to seek some line of truth applicable to all images. there is much written, particularly about the Holocaust, which decries the use of photography in memory and memoriam.
Perhaps the ultimate documentary, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film Shoah uses the painful testimony of survivors, and includes no historical archive materials. He did not feel it appropriate to show this. Yet even this work has controversy. To note Julia Pascal on Lanzmann:
‘Lanzmann’s technique was compelling because he (some say cruelly) forced his interviewees to remember their most terrible experiences on camera. In the most famous Shoah sequence, Lanzmann asked the former Treblinka barber Abraham Bomba to talk about the cutting of the hair of a fellow barber’s family before they were about to be gassed. This is agony to watch. When questioned as to the morality of making those who suffered reveal their horror on screen, Lanzmann said: “One has to die with them again in order that they didn’t die alone’.
‘Didi-Huberman [claims] that the testimony of images is underestimated in our response to the Shoah, and that in order to nourish our imagination, it is necessary to give attention to them in epistemological and ethical terms. Hostile reactions did not come as a surprise’.
In many ways, Didi-Huberman’s ideas parallel Geoffrey Batchen’s thought that a photograph’s identify can be either its actual nature or a cultural ‘product’ (again, my words). It is not ‘either/or’, just ‘and/both’.
Later in the book, Didi-Huberman is positive about Alfredo Jaar’s decision not to use photographic evidence in his installations on the Rwandan Genocide. He praises Jaar’s thought provoking if somewhat elliptical way of challenging the audience. Yet he still contends that we should look at Alex’s photographs. There is no absolute right way or truth here in consideration of atrocity..
I recall when I was practising business strategy development that the embrace of paradox was critical. What do we want – profit or market share? What do we want – innovation or delivering on customer’s existing demands? What do we want – a sustainable business or a growing one?
The answer is both.
The trick, if there is one, is not to pursue triteness. Lazy, over-aestheticized photographs or lazy, boring images.
All photography is not art, but it can be.
Atrocity pictures can be carefully created and equally carefully viewed. There is an ethical duty to make such work available, and an equally ethical duty to study it. And there is a fine line between reflective gaze and voyeurism, a charge levelled against Didi-Huberman in some quarters.
The only way to deal with these paradoxes is to carefully balance the opposing forces.
BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2001. Each Wild Idea: Writing Photography History. 2002 Ed. Cambridge: MIT Press.
BRÜCKLE, Wolfgang. 2011. Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. Photography & Culture, Volume 4. Issue 2, July 2011. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/30963060/Georges_Didi-Huberman_Images_in_Spite_of_All_Four_Photographs_from_Auschwitz_ (accessed 02/09/2019).
DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. 2008. Images in Spite of All. 2012 Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
PASCAL, Julia. 2018. Claude Lanzmann Obituary. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jul/05/claude-lanzmann-obituary (accessed 04/09/2019).