Politics & Media
Apr 14, 2010, 10:43AM

One Last Sitting With History

A recent photo series of portraits of remaining Holocaust survivors misses the mark by being too literal.

One of the more impactful books assigned to me in college was Number Our Days: A Triumph of Continuity and Culture Among Jewish Old People in an Urban Ghetto. Written by Barbara Myerhoff, it’s an incredible ethnography of an elderly Jewish community in Venice, California. My Catholic mother and Jewish father were non-practitioners; nevertheless the cultures of both religions were a big part of my extended family experience. Myerhoff’s work colored in a lot of spaces I never knew existed (and briefly inspired me to become an anthropologist), and I recommend it to anyone with any passing interest and/or connection to Jewish culture and history.

One of the more viscerally emotive sections dealt with survivor’s guilt; many members of the community escaped Europe and the Holocaust—and were well aware of friends and family that didn’t. These interviews, as painful to read as you might expect, gave shape and dimension to the greatest horror of the 20th century—a horror all to often diluted by feature films and Godwin’s Law. Despite meeting the definition, to call the Holocaust as an “evergreen”—something always journalistically viable—would be glib to an almost insulting degree.

History is a messy, screaming, living thing, and even though World War II is over a half century behind us its legacy has yet to diminish. That’s ultimately a good thing, but it certainly has lead to a fair number of misdirected tributes.

Maciek Nabrdalik’s New York Times photo series, “One Last Sitting for Holocaust Survivors,” is one such tribute. While I truly believe Nabrdalik intentions were neither shallow nor exploitative, the works simply don’t hold up either as art or ethnography. The accompanying article opens with a pair of quotes from Nabrdalik:

“I believe that by looking into their eyes, a sharper perspective will appear and perhaps help us understand the nature of the enormity of this atrocity a little bit better,” Mr. Nabrdalik said. “Understand it on a human scale, that is.”

“What I find striking about the Nazi camps’ statistics is their impersonality, the namelessness of the victims,” he said. “This series is an attempt to give them faces and to breathe individuality and humanity into the detached historical accounts.”

Nabrdalik’s images are macabre portraits; the shadows are so immense so as to devour the artist’s subject, leaving drawn, ashen faces frozen in black. It’s stark—a starkness that would be brutal if it were not so literal. The images embody an overly simplistic metaphor of human experience, and I believe his method is contradicted by the former half of the above statement as well as reinforced by the latter.

The “human scale” Nabrdalik mentions isn’t apparent in these images. But letting the shadows overtake nearly the entirety of the subjects’ bodies, the images are nearly abstracted, leaving behind the “human scale” in favor of an emotional one. Nabrdalik said he was struck by the “Nazi camps’ statistics” and “their impersonality, the namelessness of the victims.” What I don’t understand is why he thinks his methods run counter to this dehumanization. The images’ captions tell us the name, the concentration camp and, when available, the ID number of the subjects. That’s it. Nabrdalik’s imagery doesn’t offer more than that, in terms of narrative. We’re left with the starkness, an emotional lever. It’s effective—I went through the series several times over trying to wrap my mind around it.

It reminded me of a recent TED talk by Jonathan Klein, the head of the renowned Getty Images. His short talk concerns the power of images:

We’re looking for something more; we’re looking for images that shine an uncompromising light on crucial issues; images that transcend borders, that transcend religion; images that provoke us to step up and do something—in other words, to act.

He later quotes an Auschwitz survivor as saying: "The Holocaust teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.”

Nabrdalik’s are full of obvious pain and loss, the full measure of the ramifications of when man “loses his moral compass and his reason.” But the delivery is one-dimensional. They are entropic, assuming a fading away of history. The loss of the Holocaust’s last survivors is as significant as it is nominal: the Holocaust’s long shadow isn’t going anywhere once these souls pass on.

Klein had this to say, near the end of his talk:

Ansel Adams said, and I’m going to disagree with him, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” In my view it’s not the photographer who makes the photo, it’s you. We bring to each image our own values, our own belief systems, and as a result of that the image resonates with us.

I’d say all three versions are correct: a photograph is a product of the camera, the photographer and the audience. Nabrdalik’s images adhere to all three, but in such a way as to leave the audience on an emotional cliff. To step over could mean letting go of one of the most defining events in human history, or it could mean the crossing of a threshold that leads to newer, deeper understanding. Nabrdalik’s subjects—and the medium in which they’re presented—don’t point us either way. The shadows remain.


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