Surfaces and Strategies – Auschwitz and Photography
Updated: Sep 5, 2019
It has taken me a long time to process my visit to Auschwitz with Philip Singleton. We travelled there on an incredibly hot day with others in a minibus. Once at Auschwitz, we embarked on a narrated guided tour.
It is hard to put into words what I felt. On the journey there, I began to feel sick and this did not dissipate until we were on our way back to Krakow. I felt numb on seeing the infamous gates to the camp – the ones where you can find the infamous sign “ARBEIT MACH FREIT” – Work will set you free.
Throughout the tour, Philip and I did not and could not talk. Instead, we numbly and silently walked around this almost surreal site. If I hadn’t watched films and documentaries and been taught about the atrocities that happened here, I could have mistaken the brick block buildings and neat streets as a small village. This makes the whole thing harder to comprehend.
Left almost untouched (except for the planting of trees and green areas) since the Nazi forces left the site in January 1945, the site is now a museum of global importance.
Each block that you visit on the site has a specific part to tell about the story of the events that took place there. The rooms where the victims’ belongings were displayed were the hardest to visit. The photographs on the walls appear almost banal. They do not show the true horror that happened. The subjects stare at the camera, or look elsewhere; no violence or death is depicted.
Looking at the suitcases, shoes and human hair left us without words. But not everyone on the tour reacted that way. Many were happily photographing every aspect they could, taking selfies to show that they had been there. Philip and I discussed later how disrespectful and shocking to us this act was.
The human hair preserved in a darkened room was used by the Nazis to produce socks and carpets. It is strictly forbidden to take pictures in this room, as it should be out of respect for the victims. It is a sad sign of our times, that theis even has to be specified on large signs at the entrance. Yet, there are people who sneakily take shots in this room. I do not understand how anyone would think it was appropriate to take images in such a place.
This prompted a long discussion between myself and Philip later in the day about Auschwitz and photography.
Wilhelm Brasse was an occupant of the camp. Since returning from Auschwitz, I have read the book about his life as a photographer in Auschwitz, ‘Wilhelm Brasse: Number 3444 Photographer Auschwitz 1940-1945′. Brasse was a photographer before the war. On admittance to Auschwitz for his refusal to join the Wehrmacht, he was forced to work as a photographer. The Nazi regime forced him to take photographs of frightened children and victims of gruesome medical experiments. Some photographs were taken just moments before the subjects were murdered at the extermination camp .
Brasse, who died in October 2012 aged 94, has had live with his memories of what happened inside Auschwitz. To many he is a hero. He and a few others, risked their lives to preserve some of the photographs taken inside the camp even thought they had been ordered to burn them. These photographs went on to help convict the those who commissioned them.
Brasse recalls his time in Auschwitz in videos 1 and 2. WARNING – these videos contain images that some may find distressing.
Watching these videos reminded me of the thoughts of both Berger and Sontag when they talked about the emotional power of photographs. They both commented that photographs carry a trace of the world in them. Yet, as Berger says ”Unlike memory, photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning.” (Berger and Dyer, 2001).
So do the pictures repulse us on their own? The stare of the subjects and the banal surroundings do not tell the story. We need the narrative to help us understand what was happening behind these images. Some of the photographs do stir our emotions. In rooms there are images taken of young girls who had been victims of Josef Mengele. Combining these images with what we know, are some of the most harrowing things we saw in Auschwitz.
But back to our travelling companions and other visitors to the site. People at the site taking selfies with thumbs up in front of the gas chambers or on the tracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, were really disturbing to Philip and myself.
The camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau is entirely different to Auschwitz 1. There was methodology in its design, construction and use. The whole site was set up and run efficiently with a clinical detachment which terrifies me. The scale of the site and the number it was intended to house are completely overwhelming.
Dark tourism is not a new thing. For a long time now, visiting places associated with death and suffering has been popular. The preoccupation with selfies taken everywhere we go took over at this site. After one family had taken their selfie on the train tracks at Birkenau, the father commented to his wife that it ‘didn’t look like it did in the movies’. He seemed genuinely unable to distinguish between the Hollywood portrayal of the camp and reality.
At the end of the tour around Auschwitz, we were presented with a packed lunch and told we had 20 minutes to eat before we moved to Birkenau. How anyone can eat after that is beyond me. You need time to process what you have seen, and in our case, release some of the emotion of the visit.
All Philip and I wanted to do on the return journey was get off the minibus at the first opportunity, which we did. We needed to distance ourselves from these people. They acted as though they had just been to Disneyland or another theme park. We had to catch a taxi back to the hotel as we had no clue where we were. We were just so glad to be separated from the tour.
On my return, I looked into the phenomena of the Auschwitz selfie. People who post them on social media can receive a huge backlash. Video 3 shows one such case.
Video 4 discusses the issue of selfies taken at sites of destruction and devastation. It blames politicians for taking images of themselves in front of such events in a bid to gain votes.
And, recently an American Republication politician inadvisedly produced a video and selfies taken at Auschwitz and caused a major controversy over this. Video 5 discusses this.
But the selfie is ubiquitous. Simple searches online confirm this (figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1: Hashatit.com. 2017
Figure 2: Instagram.com. 2017
I still cannot get my head around why people would want to share images of their visits to such a place. I don’t think I will ever understand this. These tourists behave as crowds do at any tourist attraction — taking selfies, snacking and drinking as they amble around the site. They seem to want to illustrate to other people that they are interesting people, doing interesting things. Are we now so shallow as a society that we all need to have our self-esteem boosted by the number of likes on a social media post? Guess we all know the answer to that one. We seek validation from others and document our existence with these images.
Yet, photography has been important to Auschwitz in several ways. Firstly in recording the prisoners and the experiments that were carried out on some of them. These formed part of the Nazi documentation required by Berlin. There were portraits of SS officers which were often sent to their families as gifts. These photographers went on to provide evidence in war crimes trials after the war.
And now, the selfie seems to be a big part of the site, well for some at least.
You will notice that this blog post does not contain any of my photographs. Philip and I were conservative in the images we took out of respect for the victims and there are many things we did not photograph. I do not want to add to the plethora of images on line with my images. To me these images are a painful reminder of Auschwitz. I am not ready to share those images yet with anyone. To be honest, I haven’t even reviewed them myself yet. There is so much emotion tied up in them and I need time to process these emotions further before I revisit the images.
I am glad that have experienced the sites for myself. I am especially glad that I had Philip with me as I am not sure I could have gone through this alone, and we were only visiting the site. My only criticisms are that there are so many people there; it is hard to stop and reflect when you are being herded around the site. Tour groups could be anything in size from 12 people to 50 people. There are areas were you need to walk in single file and shuffle past others moving in the opposite direction. These are the moments that make you appreciate just how cramped and crowded the camp must have been.
The stories that were told to us of how people were killed, especially the newborns babies will haunt me forever. There is one sign at Auschwitz 1 that will stay with me and remind me why we need to maintain the site.
‘THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST, ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT’
Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau are tough places to visit. But we should, as it is so important for us to to keep the memory alive. We need to learn from the past and to stay alert to prevent things like this happening again.
Berger, J. and Dyer, G. (2001). Selected essays. London: Bloomsbury.
Brasse, W. and Brand, W. (2012). Wilhelm Brasse, number 3444. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Sontag, 1984. On Photography. Edition. Penguin Books, Limited (UK).
Figure 1: Hashatit.com. (2017). Hashatit.com | Hashtag Search. [online] Available at: https://www.hashatit.com/hashtags/Auschwitzselfie [Accessed 14 July 2017].
Figure 2: Instagram.com. (2017). #auschwitzselfie • Instagram photos and videos. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/auschwitzselfie/ [Accessed 14 July 2017].
Video 1: YouTube. (2017). Picturing Auschwitz. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyk81TbGyIk [Accessed 14 July 2017].
Video 2: YouTube. (2017). Auschwitz Portraits – Photographing Prisoners. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scqEBJ3Ppxs [Accessed 14 July 2017].
Video 3: Auschwitz Selfie Girl Interview | @PrincessBMM | TakePart Live – YouTube. 2017. YouTube[online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRsDYyvZmlA [accessed 14 July 2017].
Video 4: Fox Host Blames ‘Auschwitz Selfie’ On Obama. 2017. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=43&v=cr6P-osRajU [accessed 14 July 2017].
Video 5: Republican Regrets Auschwitz Gas Chamber Video. 2017. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwfwSnrOXNY [accessed 14 July 2017].