Capturing horrible places in a novel way.

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by DrPablo, Jun 12, 2007.

  1. DrPablo

    DrPablo Member

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    I've been thinking about this issue quite a bit recently.

    Next year I'll probably be going to Poland for a wedding. While there I'll have a chance to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau site and the Lodz ghetto. Virtually my entire family died in those two places during WWII, with my four grandparents being among the only survivors of their families.

    So this is beyond a tourist visit or an homage for me.

    I've thought all along that there is almost no reason why I should take a picture of anything there. The aesthetic, artistic, and documentary reasons why I might take a picture are completely subservient to how important these places are to my family, and how I've witnessed their effects on the lives of my grandparents. I mean, it's really more of a family cemetary to me than it is a historic site. So I've thought of just leaving my camera behind.

    This has been hammered home even more firmly as I look at people posting photos on the web, in which every photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau just has to be grainy and B&W, just has to look like it came out of either some SS documentation, some journalist with the Red Army, or from some Steven Spielberg film. It's as if everyone on the WWII Eastern Front actually was black and white, just as everyone in the American Civil War was sepia-colored.

    So I'm struggling with the idea of how people (in general) can approach these places with a novel point of view. How do you take pictures in a way that's not horribly iconic, that creates something new or perhaps even hopeful?

    Moreover, if you were in my position, and going to a place that in the most horrible way has directly defined your family, and you've grown up with stories about it since childhood, then would this idea of mine of abandoning the camera seem reasonable? Obvious? Unreasonable?
     
  2. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

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    With something as emotionally loaded as this visit would be, perhaps the first time you visit, you would be better off without the camera - then you can just react and process your feelings without trying to mediate or intellectualize them through the camera. On the flip side, perhaps you SHOULD take a camera, to help YOU cope with the emotional content of the experience. For many people, photography can be a form of therapy. If you want to try something "novel", bring the simplest point-and-shoot type camera (perhaps even a disposable?), and load it with color film. By constraining yourself technically, you have to confront the emotional content and not retreat into avoidance through f-stops, focal lengths and N+/- processing.

    In the end, it has to be YOUR decision on how you handle this. Personally, I often leave the camera behind when I'm going to a place or an event that will be personally profound, because the act of photographing it makes it public, and I don't always want to share those experiences.
     
  3. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    You might consider:
    Shooting it in colour; Colour hides nothing and tends to carry less baggage -- as you note.

    Add sentiment by shooting
    in the morning hour(s) as the sun brings 'life';
    in the evening hour(s) just after the sunsets or at twilight -- as the day comes to an end;
    or in the midday sun where all is starkly revealed.

    This may seem a bit cliché, but the meanings are still valid. I don't shoot a lot of b&w for the simple reason that it can get between me and the subject. There is a different kind of 'truth' with colour and the 'meanings' that can be derived from the time of day are what they are.
     
  4. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Perhaps the first question I would ask myself is whether I want photos at all. Some places are better experienced than photographed; perhaps what you could translate into pictures is not in fact the things before you, but rather what's in your head, so making a different project photographing something else but as a result of the mindset of going to Auschwitz.

    On the other hand, because of your personal history, you have a strong link to the place. Again, the substance of this link, rather than just the physical surroundings of the camps could be the starting point for your work.

    My girlfriend and I are starting to think about a visit in Central Europe next year, and if we're anywhere around Poland, I think I would go see Auschwitz, so I have been asking myself similar questions. I do not, however, have any personal history of direct relevance, and I don't think I really want to take pictures over there. Although a non-believer, I respect a lot the sense of importance attributed to places: sometimes taking a picture could feel just plainly obscene to me.

    French filmmaker Alain Resnais made one of the first documentaries about the camps, "Nuit et Brouillard" (night and fog) in the 50s. He intercut archive footage with current shots of the camps, but the particular thing he did was to shoot in color. It must have been some of the first color images of these locations that were in wide release, and I suppose the defamiliarization effect was strong, compared to the black and white archive footage. I think he was breaking the distance that wartime black and white film can create on a modern audience, and so people were perhaps surprised not to feel that distance.

    EDIT: just saw John's post about color, which happend while I was writing mine.
     
  5. jmdavis

    jmdavis Member

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    Paul,

    I come from a background (Tennessee, Virginia) where we take pictures of the family cemetary, and even of funerals. Some of the pictures are the only thing left to remember relatives who are now buried beneath lakes, or without tombstones.

    Every photograph doesn't need to be art. Some of them are for history. That picture that you take of Auchwitz is a direction connection to history. It's a memory, bad to be sure, but important none the less. It is not a memory that people should forget. We have to remember what happens when evil is loosed upon the world and then ignored.


    Mike Davis
     
  6. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

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    It seems to be an extremely sensitive issue for you, and an emotional and perhaps even overwhelming one. Perhaps you should bring the camera without any commitment to use it. If it were me, and I chose to take some photographs, I think that recording those places matter of factly would serve to heighten the irony of their very prosaic 'normality' against the realization of the horror that took place. And, unlike visiting the sites of other tragedies, those camps were purposefully designed do what was done there. I'm sure you will find your way to the fullest experience you can with or without the camera, but should you decide to photograph, the images you make will be uniquely your own. I hope your trip is fulfilling and brings you closer to the history of your family.
     
  7. Shmoo

    Shmoo Subscriber

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    It's understandable for you to feel conflicted about bringing a camera to such a sight of deplorable inhumanity, however, I would take the camera along.

    I recently made a side trip to Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria and was simply stunned both visually and emotionally. While my images may not be worthy of posting, having them allows me to educate friends and family about the cruelity of those times. Like other posters have noted, these things should not be forgotten.

    The personal tributes left by family members who losted their loved ones there are burned into my memory most vividly...so bring along a lot of tissues. It is VERY emotional.
     
  8. DannL

    DannL Member

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    I would take as many photographs as I could tolerate, with one aspect in mind. The pictures "I" take are not to satisfy "me". Take the pictures as a record for your children, your grandchildren, and their children. Remove yourself for a moment and imagine what "they" would like to see in photographs of "grandmother and grandfather DrPablo's" trip to the old county. I'm sure they will enjoy the photographs no matter if they are in Color or B/W.

    Enjoy your trip.
     
  9. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    It is only me but...
    I'd shoot it. I'd wring it dry. I would exert my will over it -- I'd own it or at least i would whilst it is in my viewfinder. It is a big black cloud over you and all of humanity. At the end of the day I think I'd be satisfied.

    I can't say what would work for you. You might ask yourself why you shoot or if you shoot to record things, understand them, make pleasing images or... If your reasons for shooting are compatible with your desires regarding this place than shoot it.
     
  10. AgX

    AgX Member

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    Being from Europe, especially from Germany to be more precise, means, as I stated already in this forum, being confronted with WWII daily! As long as you keep your eyes open. And of course there is that knowledge behind what you see that make the story…
    All this makes a weird blend of daily friction and habituation. Most probably not known to the average visitor from overseas.
    (Just at this moment there is report on public radio on slave labour in those years…)


    Concerning your photography issue. Forget about documenting these places. Others, less involved, have done that before. Make, or rather try to make your own story. Your relation to those places. It’s personal. May be too personal. On the other hand, why are you going there? To make photos or encounter those places. There is a great chance that a photographic project gets too dominating.


    Keep in mind we have still not yet worked out the history and horrors of WWII, the same time we are many wars and horrors further. How to learn from history at that speed?

    I remember visiting the very scarce relicts of one of those camps. Nearly gone into oblivion, thus merely anyone to come across there. But then there was another person and at the end of our short talk I was asked whether this all could be repeating itself. Yes.
     
  11. tom_micklin

    tom_micklin Member

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    Very interesting thread.
    It happens that I went to Auschwitz about a month ago and was faced with many of the same issues.
    I didn't lose many family members there, and growing up, my family refused to talk about it at all, but since I was a child, I was drawn to the place and what happened there.
    I had to take pictures there. I'm not sure if the emotions would have been overwhelming otherwise, but I personally couldn't imagine experiencing something like that without a camera.
    I shot B&W because that's what I do and the photos do look serious and somber, but that's the place. On a bright, sunny day, it's a serious and somber place.
    It'll take a while for me to process the experience, but I'm very happy that I went and that I have the photos.
    I may even go back next year.
    Best Regards,
    Tom
     
  12. DrPablo

    DrPablo Member

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    I really appreciate all the thoughts here. There's no right answer to a situation where one's typical aesthetic sensibilities are at odds with one's instincts and emotions.

    This will be an experience that I'd feel more comfortable writing about than photographing. There's certainly a difference between what the two can communicate. While a photograph can be more immediately visceral than words, sometimes that visceral sense leaves something missing -- sometimes it just needs narration to be complete.

    I've visited other terrible sites, however. I've been to the major slave trading centers of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle in Ghana, and the less significant but very symbolic slavery site of Ile de Goree in Senegal. I felt very connected with those sites because of a sense of shared suffering, shared injustice. In fact I was drawn to them for that very reason. And yet I did not have a moments hesitation about taking photos there. I guess the difference is that I don't have anything else that fills in the gaps at the African slavery sites, but for the physical remnants of the Holocaust I have the literal story of my family.
     
  13. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    I think what I would do is take things in steps. I would certainly bring a camera and film with me - so as to keep the option to take photos open as long as possible. Once there - see where your "head" is about the desirability of making a record of your visit.

    Remember, taking photos is not always about recording the "good times" - sometimes it is a way of preserving the truth of the bad.

    Also, I don't know your situation in life - whether you have kids etc. But you might consider that this is an opportunity to provide confirmation of a horrible historic time in a world where the past is all too often and too easily forgotten.
     
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  15. DrPablo

    DrPablo Member

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    No kids yet, but in our family the confirmation is sort of hard to avoid. With two of my grandparents still alive, my young cousins (9 and 12) and my niece and nephew (3 and 6) are getting to know them (though perhaps not the stories quite so well yet). I hope when my wife and I get around to having kids they'll have a chance to get to know my grandparents as well. But even if they don't, there is no chance that this will be lost on them.

    I'm not a particularly religious person, and I have a lot more belief in the strength of family than I do in anything scriptural (and I see religious traditions primarily as a way to assert family togetherness). In a way these sites in Poland are the most powerful type of pilgrimage site our family can have, because it's really our nexus -- it's a tiny little passageway through which our family completely changed. So there's something very sacred about it, which for me supercedes its place in history.

    If that makes any sense.

    I almost have ideas of taking pictures (very colorful ones) of mundane, unrelated things. Trees, or flowers, or something; with the walls and fences and railroad tracks just very vague in the background, out of focus. Something that emphasizes life, or something that emphasizes the unremarkable, in the vague context of the camps' decay. That feels more right to me than 'documentary' type shots, or the chilling, archetypal view of the railroad tracks passing underneath the gate at Birkenau.

    If that makes any sense...
     
  16. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear DrPablo,

    A while back I asked a sort-of-similar question about Oradour-sur-Glaine:

    http://www.apug.org/forums/forum47/38428-aesthetic-horror-4.html

    The responses may or may not be helpful to you, but one thing I did learn is that the responses of those who have not been there tended to be somewhat different from the responses of those who have.

    Best,

    Roger
     
  17. keithwms

    keithwms Member

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    I agree with Scott about making your first visit a non-photographic one. I think it would be best not to go with any particular goals or preconceptions, but rather simply to let the place affect you.

    When I was in Krakow, I set off to Auschwitz. And I was very deeply offended to see so many people snapping pictures. I don't know, it just struck me as the last thing on this Earth that I would want to photograph, not only because it is horrific or whatever but because it is somehow a site with far more emotional gravity than a cemetary or even a battlefield.

    So anyway, I couldn't even bring myself to go into the camp, it just seemed that whole experience was too uncomfortably casual. And I almost came to blows with some of my companions because they seemed entirely immune to the feeling of the place! So my suggestion is that if you have any profound feelings about the place, you'd better try to arrange a special visit apart from the common tourists.

    I had the same feeling in Normandy and in some other places as well, such as ground zero in Hiroshima and the more recent ground zero in Manhattan. In Hiroshima there was this sign in the (very modern and beautiful) city, "let all souls here rest in peace" and that pretty much hit me like a ton of bricks and wiped out any thoughts I had of taking photos! At neither place did I have the slightest desire to take a photo.

    Of course, everyone reacts differently to these things, I'm just saying how I reacted.
     
  18. Videbaek

    Videbaek Member

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    Why not go without the camera, just be there. See, think, take some notes about the light, make a few sketches, ponder how things look. Come away with impressions, feelings. Let them percolate in your brain, maybe they will turn into themes and ideas that you can tackle later with photography if you feel so inclined. In this way the heavy literalness of photography won't plague you when you're there. Later, you might have material with which to make metaphorical pictures that are personal and meaningful. Good luck. Can't imagine what such a visit would be like.
     
  19. Samuel Hotton

    Samuel Hotton Member

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    Good morning Paul,
    I cannot add much to what is already written. I would however take the camera with me as you will then have the option. If you do not take it, you have NO option. Perhaps you will see just one bright little flower in a sunbeam that speaks just to you and you will have no way to imortalize it other than your memory. This might be the best way, but you will never be able to share that beauty with a friend or loved one in the future.
    Something else to consider is that many films will not last much beyond living memories. This tells me that Kodachrome for color and conventional black and white are going to last the longest, if you want the image to last so that your grandchildren can see what grandfather saw. I'm sure that others here can tell you of other films have long life spans, I'm only aware of Kodachrome and B&W. If you decide to make that special image on a color film, it can be printed on Cibachrome / Ilfachrome paper and it will last for future generations. It will have to be exposed on a color slide / transparency film. I personally think I would take the camera, have a roll of Black & White AND a roll of Kodachrome film with it, NOT load it, LEAVE it IN the bag, and decide when at the location. Options equate to success, success equates to happiness. Give yourself options. Good luck, enjoy your trip. In many ways I envy you.
    Sam Hotton
     
  20. MurrayMinchin

    MurrayMinchin Membership Council Council

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    I'm with Sam.

    By the way, Paul, you're making all the sense in the world!

    Murray
     
  21. k_jupiter

    k_jupiter Member

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    The only camp I have been to is Dachau. I took my parents there in the 1980. My Mother lost distant relatives in the camps from her Polish heritage. It was... intense.

    I took one photo. The shot of the gate with the words "arbeit mach frei" welded into the metal. The symbol of the big lie. The big lie millions died for, both within the camp walls and without.

    Take a camera, be prepared not to use it. I suspect you will use your best judgment.

    tim in san jose
     
  22. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I think this is a great idea.
     
  23. Anscojohn

    Anscojohn Subscriber

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    Dr. Pablo,
    Having lived for a year in Munich, and vowing NOT to visit Dachau, it came about that I ended up driving some people out there and decided to go through the exhibits and the remaining complex.

    I chose not to take a camera, feeling it would be an afront to take pictures or even to try to do serious photography in such a place. Almost forty years later, I do not regret the decision.

    Anscojohn, Mount Vernon, Virginia USA
     
  24. jd callow

    jd callow Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Anscojohn,
    Am I correct in assuming that the afront is a personal thing and not something you assign to others who take pictures there?
     
  25. Removed Account

    Removed Account Member

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    I relate considerably to your predicament. My grandparents from my Mother's side are both from Chenstechov (sp?) and I know at least my Grandmother spent time both in Lodz and Auschwitz. Neither of my parents knew their grandparents, who were all killed in the war. I have yet to visit over there, and my two remaining grandparents do not speak of it at all, but when I do visit I will bring my camera, but leave it in the hotel room. If the visits move me to photograph, I will return to them with the camera. I feel this solves the issue of using the camera to detach myself from the situation, and also allows me to record how I see the area. In a way I feel as if it would be my responsibility as a photographer to bring the images back for those of my family who would not be there, especially considering the advancing age and declining health of my remaining 2 grandparents.

    - Justin
     
  26. DrPablo

    DrPablo Member

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    Thanks to all who have contributed so far. I think the idea of having the camera by my side, just in case, is reasonable. But I can imagine never taking it out of the bag. I think photos can be very meaningful, but my kids won't need photos to assimilate this story -- they'll know.

    What's sad is how it disappears from some families, though. A family that had been friends with my father's family in Hungary immigrated to Quebec in 1956, and they converted to Catholocism. And their grandchildren, who are my age, were never raised with any kind of reference to their Jewish ancestry and never learned about what happened to their grandparents during the war. I've asked them about it, and they just don't identify with it at all. It's too bad -- because I think the power of that era for humanity will be best passed down through the memories in families, especially as it gets more distant and there are fewer survivors remaining.

    My paternal grandmother was liberated from there after surviving the selection at Auschwitz. I can imagine visiting that as well if I'm ever in the area, as well as Bergen-Belsen where my mom's parents were liberated. A lot of those sites don't exist anymore, like a lot of the smaller forced labor camps in Poland and Hungary where my grandparents spent some of the war.