Capturing horrible places in a novel way.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Using film since before it was hip.
"One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal
, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.