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Traces of earth and clay: documentary photography of the Shoah

Review essay of Christophe Cognet's Éclats. Prises de vue clandestines des camps nazis (2019)

This essay is the result of a collaboration between the Flemish magazine for culture and critique Rekto:Verso and Trigger. You can read its Dutch version here.

Wilco Versteeg


04 mrt. 2020 • 15 min

The murder of millions of Jews and other victims and enemies of the Third Reich largely took place out of sight of any camera lens. The scant footage of the Shoah that does exist has, therefore, been closely scrutinised. With his book Éclats. Prises de vue clandestines des camps nazis, filmmaker Christophe Cognet makes an important correction to the way we handle the images of the Holocaust that were taken in secret.

The liberation of Auschwitz, now 75 years in the past, is commemorated annually. Images play an increasingly large role in our culture of remembrance as the survivors and their testimonies disappear year by year. Today, when you turn on a TV or computer screen or open a newspaper, you are confronted with a procession of horrific images.

It can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, history from imagination, in our shared visual memory. The pictures taken by the SS; the few images recorded secretly by prisoners; documentary footage by liberators; and even popular films can all become jumbled together in our minds. It is more important to see the Shoah than to situate the looking in an ethical framework.

Filmmaker and writer Christophe Cognet resists this visual bundling. In earlier work, and especially in his most recent book Éclats. Prises de vue clandestines des camps nazis (Seuil, 2019), he makes a significant correction to our visual interpretation of the Shoah. Cognet employs an extraordinarily creative and critical polyphony of texts, critical reflections and witness testimonies to make us look differently at the Shoah. After all, looking can only be ethical if we respect the limitations of the visual traces that history has left us, no matter how frustrating their unreadability may be. According to Cognet, image ethics and the responsibility of the viewer are predicated on the circumstances in which the photograph was taken. The violence is thus not so much in the image as in the gaze that a photograph imposes.

Over the decades, everything seems to have been said in the discussion surrounding photography and the Shoah. There are two prevailing but now exhausted positions in this discourse about viewing the suffering of others: that of the visual unrepresentability of the Shoah, and that of insistence on the need to keep looking in order to understand this catastrophe. Cognet is very familiar with this philosophical debate, but his approach is first and foremost that of a historian: he wants to scour our visual memory of the images made by the perpetrators and of the fictitious representations that reduce the Shoah to the gas chambers and nothing else. His book Éclatsis an archaeology of the visual memory and a search for the missing traces of the past in the present, traces that can be so obscure as to be almost illegible. The author seeks nothing less than a completely new framework for looking at the Shoah.

Peering through the fog

Cognet’s thinking is deeply rooted in a typical French concept of image ethics, which— surprisingly—has had little appeal outside the Hexagon. Unlike in most other European countries, in France viewing the Shoah has been embedded in an intellectual and visual culture since 1945. The role that Alain Resnais’ short documentary Nuit et brouillard (1956) played in this cannot be overestimated. The Shoah was engraved in the culture of remembrance from the first years of liberation as a result of this cinematic indictment, drawn from horrific archive footage: the fate of the European Jews was represented as the essence of the war and as a crime for which everyone carried responsibility, even if it was only by looking away.

Until the 1980s, this film formed part of the national curriculum for every high school student in France. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah(1985) then took over this mantle. Lanzmann rejected Resnais’ dependence on archives as a source of knowledge about the Shoah and instead sought to penetrate the subject through spoken testimonies by perpetrators, survivors and bystanders—categories of witnesses that Lanzmann showed could overlap. The attempted destruction of the prisoners’ individuality is thus unsuccessful, as they salvage their identity through oral testimonies replete with slips of the tongue, mangled grammar and voices choked with emotion.

Our visual archive of the concentration and extermination camps has slowly expanded over the years, but it remains remarkably poor. This is certainly true when we consider that this is about the murder of millions of people in a society where cameras and relatively fast production and distribution channels were already common. As a result, the annihilation of an important part of European culture is almost absolute. Even the traces of the annihilation were annihilated.

The most glaring hole in the Shoah archive is the lack of images of gas chambers. Although this is grist for the mill for Holocaust deniers, critics and filmmakers appear to have an unhealthy fascination with imagining this murder weapon. Films both tasteless and intriguing, such as Schindler’s List, La vita è bella and Son of Saul, circle these gas chambers as if they were the Holy of Holies of late modernity; as though they lay at the heart of the Shoah. In our visual culture, we repeatedly lurch across the paper-thin borders between exploitation, sentimentality, catharsis, and iconoclasm.

Cognet discusses all forms of recorded image, from secret photographs to epic films, without resorting to polemics, and reproduces only the images made by prisoners: there are only four such photographs in existence, taken in Auschwitz. Cognet steers us away from images that reproduce the perpetrator’s view, or that fictionalise the Shoah to such an extent that history is eradicated. He bases himself on the rarely seen but for him ultimate corpus of pictures from the concentration camps. He does not look at these images in order to learn from them, as we already have extensive information about the Shoah. But how did these images come to exist?

Beeld uit Eclats

Image from Éclats. Prises de vue clandestines des camps nazis

The documentary value of Shoah images

In October 1944, the Polish resistance received an extraordinary package. An accompanying note stated: “Have possibility of taking photos”. Sonderkommando Alberto Errera had managed to take four photographs from a gas chamber. These images are believed to be the only ones that exist of the Auschwitz killing centre. However, as documentary material they failed: at the time, they could not convince the world that a genocide was taking place right under its nose, and even today the blurry images are almost indecipherable. The context in which these images were made and at first not circulated—and when they were only after enlargement and distortion—is often overlooked. The fact of their existence and their embedding in remembrance culture raises fundamental questions about the humble role that documentary photography plays in political and moral crises.

Although these four photographs form the pièce de résistance of Cognet’s study, the majority of Éclats consists of—in some cases never-before-published—images from other concentration camps. They were all made by prisoners and show life in the camps in its at times mundane routineness. The most striking pictures depict moments of relaxation while in the background a crematorium chimney smokes; prisoners showing the wounds inflicted by medical experiments; self-portraits; and the vivid scars on the back of a child’s head. Cognet takes us to the moment when the photograph was taken: what do shadows and light say about the time of day and year? What can we say about the place it was taken, about any fingerprints there may be on the print? What do we know about the author of the picture and how they came to be within the camp’s perimeter with a camera when being caught with one meant certain death?

Contrary to what many cultural theories posit, the author’s intention is of the utmost importance here. Rushed composition, movement, blurring: the fear felt by the photographer manifests itself in the imperfections of the image and not in what is depicted. Most of the surviving images of the camps were taken after the liberation and do not, therefore, show the world of the concentration camp but degree zero of a regained freedom. The famous photographs of the liberation of Buchenwald by the leading war photographer Margaret Bourke-White are for this reason problematic: they show a fascination with and disgust at the liberation as it encounters a hermetic world that practised its own version of normal. The gaze of the photographer is not the same as that of the prisoner.

This is certainly the case in the images that Cognet reproduces here. The internal logic of the camp is not the same as ours. The camp, with its “hier ist kein warum (“here there is no why”) seems to resist a medium that claims to make the world visible—and even change it—through its universal language. Cognet also refrains from filling in the gaps in history with stories: he tells us what we can verify and allows the unknown to remain a void in his narrative.

This embedding of photography in the fabric of history is sacred to Cognet since it represents a pathway between two positions in visual criticism. The first position attempts to construct a post-factum responsibility by demonstrating that it would have been possible for European citizens and allied governments to have known that millions of civilians were being murdered in gas chambers. One example of this argument can be found in the documentary Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges by the German artist Harun Farocki, in which he produces aerial photographs of Auschwitz found in the archives to prove that people could have seen what was occurring below and should have intervened.

This hope that the documentary image, if only we want to see it, can change the world for the better is the tragedy of a medium that has remained powerless throughout history to help resolve humanitarian and political crises. In practice, photographs lead at most to the creation of an important but helpless awareness. The second position—like that of the abovementioned French context—seems to be a retreat into an artistic processing of historical material.

Georges Didi-Huberman is the most talked-about contemporary visual critic involved in this rich discourse. In L’Oeil de l’histoire, Huberman objects to Claude Lanzmann’s iconoclasm but at the same time opposes the dialectic that perceives the image as an illustration. Didi-Huberman tries to show how images create history and how visual gaps need to be filled in with imagination and montage: “Pour savoir, il faut s’imaginer” (“to know, one must imagine”), he suggests in Images malgré tout. A photograph opens a world of knowledge and this knowledge can lead to collective redemption, to a non-fetishistic approach to images. This way of thinking is peppered with secularised theology.

Cognet strongly disagrees with this emphasis on redemption through imagination. He believes that Didi-Huberman is retreating into a bastion where history suffers for the sake of theory and style. Through conjunction and fantasy, Didi-Huberman would have it that history is removed from its already precarious context. This instantly raises the spectre of the power of photography: it can show individual suffering with a force and violence that elevates it to a universal symbol of human suffering like no words ever can.

The photographs in Cognet’s book attempt to restore the individuality of the maker and as such have little relation to the metaphorical function that is generally central to the discourse on documentary photography. A metaphor universalises the personal but destroys it at the same time. The extermination camp is a place where metaphors, catharsis and meaning are impossible.

It is thus pertinent that rather than end his book with an exhaustive conclusion or with an image, Cognet opts for a text by a poet whose oeuvre pre-eminently addressed the problematic nature of metaphors: Paul Celan. In his poem Psalm, he writes that “Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm / niemand bespricht unseren Staub / Niemand” (“No one moulds us again out of earth and clay / no one conjures our dust / No one”).

The title of Cognet’s book, Éclats, refers among other things to the human bones that are still regularly unearthed in Auschwitz. Cognet wants to show that Paul Celan was wrong: the earth, clay and dust do indeed leave traces from which we can—and must—strive to create a world that rights the wrongs and sufferings of the past.

The boundaries to looking at suffering

The camps continue to wield immense power over us. For this reason, our imaginations must respect the boundary to the gas chamber, no matter how tempting it may be to depict this mysterium. Cognet’s reconstruction of lives, individuals and plausible stories stops where most theory starts.

The conditions under which these images were made and their lack of circulation raises questions about the documentary nature of these photographs but also of documentary photography in general. These pictures barely, if at all, escaped the world of the concentration camps: restrictions on people’s freedom included restrictions on the circulation of images. This still appears to apply today, with documentary photography playing no role in the mediation of conflicts, only in memorialising them.

If we push this thought to its logical conclusion—and wish to surrender to pessimism—then we should ask ourselves whether we should be looking at documentary photography at all: the moment we are confronted with an image of a suffering person, we can no longer remedy that suffering. The looking itself, and the so-called awareness that may result, threatens to fetishize suffering, to aestheticize and universalise it, or to provoke our innate compassion to such an extent that we would rather look away. But in a culture in which the visual occupies such a prominent position, this cannot be the answer.

Documentary photography came up against its definitive boundaries during the Shoah. Its impotence is revealed in all its glory, an ineffectualness that still seems to come as a surprise today. Our expectations of photography remain high despite its history of letting us down. Cognet sets out to constrain our ideas and often fantastical hopes when it comes to the medium—but not because he wants to remind us again of photography’s broken promises. What Cognet wants to show us is what it is, despite everything, capable of: capturing traces of the past. Traces of existence, of annihilation, of a human being in a particular place at a particular moment.

Notes from the editors:

On YouTube one can stream Nuits et Brouillard (1956) in full, and have a look at the trailer of Lanzmann' Shoah (1985).

Here, on the publisher's website, one finds more information about the book.

Wilco Versteeg teaches visual and cultural studies at Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands), and holds a PhD on war—and conflict photography from Université Paris Diderot. www.wilcoversteeg.com

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