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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally Posted by copake_ham
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...
A while back I asked a sort-of-similar question about Oradour-sur-Glaine:
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.
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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.
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.
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.
I'm with Sam.
Originally Posted by Samuel Hotton
By the way, Paul, you're making all the sense in the world!
Note to self: Turn your negatives into positives.
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
Where ever you are, there you be.