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Eye as Witness Part 1

In this video, Maiken Umbach looks at the problem of perpetrator photography.
So in this short film, we’re going to build on our discussion of the problem of perpetrator photography. As we’ve seen, the visual records through which we learn about and imagine the Holocaust today in textbooks, and museums, and so forth were overwhelmingly created by the perpetrators, by the PK, the Propaganda Kompanie, embedded in the German armed forces, professional photographers who were taking images depicting these events through the Nazi lens and for the purposes of Nazi propaganda. In an example, we looked at, a classic example, is the Stroop Report about the clearing of the Warsaw ghettos, where we have an extensive photographic oeuvre created by the PK photographers. And these photographs are amongst the most frequently reproduced Holocaust photos today.
They populate museum walls and Holocaust exhibitions all over the world. In 2019, the academic team around Maiken and our team came together to figure out how we could use the techniques available to museums and exhibition makers to drive this point home to modern-day audiences and to draw attention to the counterpoint of images taken by the victims in ghettos and camps. The result was a touring exhibition called The Eye as Witness, Recording the Holocaust, which opened in January 2020. The exhibition was on show in London at the South Hampstead Synagogue, in Bradford at The Peace Museum, and at The Imperial War Museum in Manchester.
In the future, we hope to open in London at the Jewish Museum and at The Djanogly Art Gallery here in Nottingham. In making The Eye as Witness, our aim was to draw on a range of different media to prompt people to look at Holocaust photographs differently. We felt simply labelling them, simply saying in small writing underneath, this is the perpetrator photograph, is not enough. It doesn’t disenchant the image. It can’t compete with the incredible emotional and visceral power of these professionally created images. So we wanted to find new and creative solutions, and we used four different ways, four different media, to try and tackle this challenge together. The first one of these was a virtual reality installation.
It is a recreation in a 360-degree, immersive environment of the scene that is the subject of a Nazi propaganda photograph from the Stroop Report. So in the exhibition, you put on a VR headset, and you can walk into the photograph to explore what was left out, why the angle was chosen, what the agenda was. But also and crucially, if you turn around, you see the photographer behind you in action taking the photo. And most of our visitors said that finding themselves on the other side of the camera lens was a really powerful experience and really made them question, with all photos, who the photographer is and why they made the image.
The second part of the exhibition are panels that display secret photos taken by Jewish people and the anti-Nazi resistance, who under enormous risks to themselves, used the camera to record the story as they saw it. That didn’t change their fate. But it gave them a certain degree of control over how their horrific experiences would be remembered by future generations. Surprisingly, such images are rarely seen today. But we wanted to draw your attention to them. So in the exhibition, we are only showing a small selection of such images. Our aim was not to illustrate a complete history of events. Rather, we wanted to reflect with you on why people took such enormous risks to create their own photos.
So we group the photos thematically, exploring how people took images of themselves the way they wanted to be remembered, and with symbolic resistance of creating an alternative visual archive when the perpetrators tried to prevent exactly this. The third part of the exhibition is an art installation created by Lina Selander. Lina’s artwork features a mirror placed under an old table. In the mirror, we can observe a collage of moving images taken by the perpetrators and victims, as well as empty album pages, which prompt us to reflect on the gaps in our understanding and memory. Let me quote Lina’s words on her own artwork.
“When I set out to create this artwork, I knew there were two things it could not be, not the voice of a witness, not the pedagogic voice of a museum. My work is a reflection. Images created by victims and survivors of the Holocaust appear in a mirror. But they are never fully visible. We see reflected fragments. In ancient myth, the Goddess Athena gives Perseus a mirror-shield, through which the Gorgon’s face is only seen from an angle. Seeing the whole face will turn you into stone. This exhibition shows photos by those who have seen the Gorgon’s face. Some were taken from inside a gas chamber. The photographer hid in the absolute darkness. These images reach us from absolute darkness.
They remain there; we can only contemplate their reflections. But looking away will turn the world into stone.” Finally, The Eye as Witness included an interactive element in which visitors could record their own responses to photographs, photos that we showed them on interactive digital touch screens, and that invited visitors to record questions that they might have about an image or their emotional reactions to particular photos. And these photos were a mixture of Holocaust photos of the kind we’ve discussed so far and more recent photographs, photos of contemporary violence and contemporary victimhood. So we wanted to enable the transferability here of lessons from the Holocaust to the present.
At the end of this course, we’re going to ask you to engage with some very similar questions. But for now we would like you to share some thoughts about what you’ve heard so far. What do you think museums and exhibitions like ours can bring to the study of Holocaust photography that perhaps a school textbook cannot? Are you interested in the use of immersive technologies in the space? What do you think of the idea of using virtual reality? Or perhaps you are more interested in exploring an artistic angle. What do you think the work of Lina Selander can add to understanding of such photographs? Perhaps you’ve seen other interesting examples elsewhere of innovative engagement with photos like these in museum spaces.
We would love to hear your thoughts.

In this step, we explore how exhibitions can tackle the problem of bias in Holocaust photography.

“The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust” is a touring exhibition that Maiken’s team and the National Holocaust Centre and Museum co-created. It opened in 2020, and will finish its national run in 2022. In this film, the team discuss what motivated them to create the exhibition, and they explain the different techniques they used.

In the discussion step, please share your thoughts on the questions Maiken raises at the end of the film. From what you have heard, which techniques do you think are the most powerful in enabling modern audiences to look at Holocaust photos differently? Virtual Reality? Art? Interactive exhibits? Feel free to add comments on other interesting examples you may have seen elsewhere!


Exhibition website

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Photographing the Holocaust

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