Feb/Mar 2009

Seeing Eye to Eye

Because it’s the product of three independent parties—photographer, camera, subject—the photograph cannot be owned. indeed, it can affect us in ways the photographer might never have foreseen or desired.

William T. Vollmann


How should we parse a documentary image that directly or indirectly portrays evil, injustice, anguish? What rights and duties, if any, does our understanding engender?

I begin with Paul Garson’s Album of the Damned: Snapshots from the Third Reich. The majority of the photographs were composed, we are informed, by Wehrmacht soldiers who were amateur photographers. How could such a compilation fail to fascinate? Unfortunately, while Garson the compiler deserves my gratitude, Garson the commentator is extraordinarily unequal to his subject. At the zenith of his acumen, he compares one benign-looking German soldier to Sergeant Schultz of the television show Hogan’s Heroes. To a photograph of two soldiers carrying the upside-down carcass of a wolf, he affixes the caption “Werewolf,” which affords an excuse to ramble on about Hitler’s headquarters “Wolf’s Lair,” as well as the “Werewolf” detachments of desperate Nazis who tried to sabotage the approaching Allies at the end of the war. Album of the Damned deserves short shrift, all the more so since a far superior, if less comprehensive, compilation of amateur Wehrmacht photos exists—namely, Peter Jahn and Ulrike Schmiegelt’s Foto-Feldpost: Geknipste Kriegserlebnisse 1939–1945 (Photo-Fieldpost: Snapshots of War Experiences 1939–1945, 2000). American readers should not be discouraged by the German text, since the images speak so eloquently for themselves. Touristic portraits of the alien other, such as a photograph of a Russian family in their winter clothes, engage us with sad speculations as to what these people were thinking when the soldiers asked them to pose; surely, they dared not refuse. Here, too, are trophy snapshots: A Jewish commissar digs his own grave as the photographer’s uniformed comrades gather in the background; a broadly smiling soldier stands with his rifle while a partisan waits to be shot in the back. And here are the advertisements: “War memories from a Zeiss-Tessar!” “After the final victory a Voigtländer Kleinbildkamera!” “Agfa Photos: A bridge between frontline and homeland.”

Garson also reproduces that Agfa ad, and the photos he has gathered (by purchase, evidently) are, as said, interesting in their own right, but his subject has affected him so deeply that he exoticizes it much as the unknown German in Foto-Feldpost must have exoticized that Russian family. Although Garson pays lip service to the now banal “banality of evil,” he goes on to imply that every atom of the Third Reich must have been made of Wagnerian Holocaust Kryptonite. A little boy in a soldier’s cap sits on a bench as his mother stands above: “While flowers surround them, a dense darkness lurks close behind.” A father carries his little girl: “An ominous-looking tree, its limbs severed, stands in mute counterpoint.” On the facing page, “a young boy dashes in front of a soldier perched on a swing. The soldier smiles down at the boy.” All the same, to Garson the boy “seems to be walking into the path of the swing, into harm’s way.”

At first, such dramatizations merely annoy, but as the book moves from the Heimat into the war, Garson’s insistence on finding evil everywhere becomes the most primitive propaganda. A photograph of three grinning officers, one leaning a trifle forward, one throwing his head back, one in between, with snow and other soldiers behind them, is captioned “Punchline. Three officers share a joke, perhaps at the expense of France, which fell to German forces in just six weeks.” Then again, perhaps it wasn’t at the expense of France. Perhaps it wasn’t at anyone’s expense at all.

Another photograph is captioned “Between the Eyes.” One soldier holds a pig by the ears, another aims his pistol at it. The ear holder “seems aware of his unenviable position, the gun pointed in his direction as well as at the pig.” Would Garson have captioned a similar photo of two American soldiers butchering a pig with an equally broad hint about people killers? In an office with striped curtains, three uniformed men sit, studying documents. A fourth is standing. Garson captions this “The Murderer at the Desk.” Which one of them is the murderer, precisely? What documents are they reading? Where and when was this picture taken? “The calendar tells us it is the 23rd, although the month and year are illegible. A map on the wall appears to be of the sphere of German occupation.” In other words, we don’t know much. All the same, these men “epitomized the new type of mass killer, faceless bureaucrats who prompted the coining of a new term, Schreibtischmörder . . . The Murderer at the Desk.”

I suspect that by now quite a number of us know that the Nazis were, taken all in all, murderers, and that every German alive at the time was willingly or unwillingly caught up in what was called Gleichschaltung, the coordination of all organizations into Hitler’s totalitarian society. Every worker, mother, and soldier furthered an atrociously evil end. But there is more to it than that. Some people became zealously, joyously evil; some did evil as a result of compulsion; some were kind when it cost them little; a few can be called heroes and even martyrs. Who is Garson to imply that one of these military typists is a Murderer at the Desk? Suppose that the task of these men was to facilitate the passage of supplies to the front line. By so doing, they would, it is true, have helped the Einsatzgruppen to machine-gun civilians or the Wehrmacht to hold and possibly extend one of the most wicked conquests on earth—but were these typists themselves doing anything that their Allied counterparts were not? In other words, were they personally guilty of anything? The notion of universal German guilt remains, to say the least, controversial. My own suspicion of it has to do with its disconcerting resemblance to the Nazi assertion of universal Jewish guilt. And if, as seems quite possible, the three laughing soldiers were sharing a joke that was not cruel, and the pig-shooting soldier possessed no gloating desire to murder his comrade just for the hell of it, and one or two or even all four of those military typists were actually decent men, then the idiocy of Garson’s maunderings becomes worse than irrelevant. How convenient it would be if the Third Reich’s citizens had been somehow evil by nature, demons in somebody’s album of the damned—in other words, unlike us. The actual case, of course, is far more terrible.

A more thoughtful observer than Garson asserts, “There are two ways of ‘being inattentive,’ so to speak, to such images: the first consists in subjecting them to hypertrophy, in wanting to see everything in them. In short, it consists in wanting to make them icons of horror.” The writer is Georges Didi-Huberman. His concise volume Images in Spite of All discusses four clandestine photographs taken at Auschwitz by a member of the Sonderkommando, the “special detachment” whose members, also prisoners, facilitated the entry of their fellow human beings into the gas chambers, then removed the gold teeth, cut off the women’s hair (it would be woven into cloth), cremated the remains, and, in a few weeks, entered the gas chambers themselves, to be similarly “processed” by their successors. The photographer’s name was Alex. No one knows his last name. He perished soon after, of course.

It is miraculous that these negatives survived. Smuggled out in a tube of toothpaste, they constitute, so we are told, the only known photographs of mass killing in the gas chambers. Hence Didi-Huberman’s characterization of them as “images in spite of all,” brave affirmations on the part of the doomed, sad scraps to be treasured, instructions to be followed insofar as we can: We, the victims, show you our fate. Look at us, remember us, save us! This “insofar as we can” now corresponds to “in spite of all,” for the few who were saved and the many who were murdered have long since passed beyond imminence and urgency. Looking and remembering remain valid tasks; these invite us to study each of the four images in detail. On this subject, I must mention a peculiar deficiency of this edition (perhaps the French original was superior): The photographs have been reproduced at an almost miserly size and on matte paper, significantly hindering Didi-Huberman’s exposition.

Seeking to see them better, I turned to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s Auschwitz: A History in Photographs (1993), which mentions only three of them, I suppose because the fourth does not depict people. The museum makes a slightly less sweeping claim about them than does Didi-Huberman, remarking merely that “they are the only photographs taken by prisoners that have survived.” Their publication reproduces each of the three images full page, at nearly letter size, on glossy stock. First, we see Didi-Huberman’s figure 5, which is to say the image of naked Jewish women being pushed into the gas chamber. In the original, the camera has been tilted, and the human figures take up less than an eighth of the frame. The museum has cropped out the remainder (gas chamber, trees, and sky). Immediately following, the museum has reproduced Didi-Huberman’s figure 4, then his figure 3. In both cases, the gas chamber’s black interior and doorway—about three-quarters of the frame in the originals—have been cropped out. Thus, we are better able to see what human beings are doing to human beings. I am myself a photojournalist whose images are frequently subjected to nonconsensual cropping and captioning, and I make my peace with this when I can, but after all, I entertain expectations of being alive for a bit longer and thereby retaining some ability to respond when my images are misused. Presumably, Alex had no such expectations. And this brings us to Didi-Huberman’s second way of being inattentive: “Reducing, desiccating the image . . . seeing in it no more than a document of horror. . . . The cropping of these photographs is a manipulation that is at the same time formal, historic, ethical, and ontological. The mass of black that surrounds the sight of the cadavers and the pits, this mass where nothing is visible gives in reality a visual mark that is just as valuable as all the rest of the exposed surface. That mass where nothing is visible is the space of the gas chamber. . . . [It] gives us the situation itself.” To erase it is “almost to insult the danger that [Alex] faced and to insult his cunning as résistant.”

How would I feel, if I were Alex? His photographs are indeed documents of horror, not works of art. They are also icons of horror. Gazing at them, I feel what studying the Holocaust so often makes me feel: a kind of slimy, filthy grief, a vileness that respect for the dead and fear of enabling new murders enjoin I not wash away. Didi-Huberman’s uncropped versions cause me to feel that filthy grief no more and no less than the museum’s tightened, rotated versions. So little of who Alex was or might have been remains, not to mention the identities of the other victims we see in the photographs, that the well-intentioned editorial violence done to Alex’s artifacts hardly robs them of their power. In any case, I see in them the essential horror that Alex sought to make me see. That being said, I must add that of course Didi-Huberman’s respect for their full-frame, tilted integrity is absolutely correct and that Images in Spite of All provides the carefully extended anguished engagement, both epitaph and caption, that the subject demands.

The beginning of the book, which analyzes the images, is the best. Much of the rest consists of a polemical reply to the attacks of Claude Lanzmann, director of the famous film Shoah, and those of Lanzmann’s allies Gérard Wajcman and Elisabeth Pagnoux, who believe that the Holocaust should not be represented by means of archival material. I will never forget the effect that Shoah had on me through the slow, almost banal camerawork, the slow painfulness of the testimony, whereby the Holocaust became, as it should be to anyone who reflects on it, an ongoing present trauma. I have not read Lanzmann’s statements about Didi-Huberman’s project, and I greatly respect what he did in Shoah. However, if the author is representing Lanzmann’s views accurately, it would seem that the latter has made the mistake of claiming ownership of the grief that all of us feel or ought to feel about this event. Here is the heart of Didi-Huberman’s critique: “Wajcman and Pagnoux suggest that, since all of the images of the Shoah are inappropriate to their object, they are necessarily false or even falsifying. This is why ‘there are no images of the Shoah.’ The images are missing because the images lie.” Lanzmann again, quoted by Didi-Huberman: “Archival images are images without imagination. They petrify thought and kill any power of evocation.” This is so absurd (and far more insulting to Alex than the cropping of photographs) that Didi-Huberman’s lengthy refutation of it reminds us of a medieval theological dispute. In the end, the reader is presented with the pitiable spectacle of brilliant and probably decent people inflicting their own pain on each other.

“The photograph is out there, an object in the world, and anyone, always (at least in principle), can pull at one of its threads and trace it in such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what it shows, possibly even completely overturning what was seen in it before.” Thus writes Ariella Azoulay in The Civil Contract of Photography. Contrary to Lanzmann’s claim, the imaginative possibilities of photographs, like those of any other aspect of reality, remain endless. For instance: “Punchline. Three officers share a joke, perhaps at the expense of France, which fell to German forces in just six weeks.” Or, better yet, a close reading of an image, accompanied by eloquently sincere conjectures about its context. Azoulay’s longish, beautifully written illustrated essay (unfortunately, as is the case with Didi-Huberman’s book, many photographs are reproduced so coarsely, and at so small a size, that we must take some of the author’s explications on faith) offers us just such readings, which teach me to value Alex’s photographs and even Garson’s compendium all the more.

Azoulay’s position is that the photograph belongs to no one, certainly not to the photographer; therefore, it belongs to all of us. Accordingly, studying a photograph that “allows a reading of the injury inflicted on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation.” Indeed, the civic ideal is central to her book. She defines citizenship as possession not only of natural rights but also of the right to express grievances. The Civil Contract of Photography goes on to assert that empathy and compassion become irrelevant terms if we admit people with “impaired citizenship,” such as Palestinians, who are stateless, or women, who suffer from “a narrowed living space,” to the social contract. This supposed irrelevance derives from Azoulay’s conception of human rights, which is principled almost to the point of legalism. To her, a photograph can be an exhibit in some ideal world court’s criminal case against abusive authority. Specifically, photography can document the impairment of or the exclusion from citizenship, as in the case of Alex’s four images. Hence, “photography is one of the distinctive practices by means of which individuals can establish a distance between themselves and power in order to observe its actions and to do so not as its subjects.” And disaster photography expresses and furthers the duty of all world citizens to help one another. In effect, Azoulay equates the photograph with the gaze. No one can own a photograph, least of all the photographer, because his photograph came about as a result of three mutually independent parties—photographer, camera, and subject—and, moreover, because the photograph, manifesting reality, which cannot be owned, can affect us in ways that the photographer might never have foreseen or desired. I have often had the experience of printing a negative that I composed and seeing in the finished image some urgently significant element of which I was not in the least aware while taking the picture. Once I hastily and apprehensively photographed an angel-faced young Congolese insurgent, and only when I printed that tiny negative five years later did I discover the eyes and forehead of his comrade peering out at me from behind the leaves. This addition gives the photograph, for me at least, an eerie power. And there is every reason to believe that when Alex made his four Auschwitz photos (which Azoulay mentions in passing), he was concerned more with avoiding immediate liquidation than with what that moment’s atrocity actually looked like. And if those same photographs had been taken not by Alex but by a Nazi guard, our entitlement to look, learn, grieve, and act would be unaffected. Accordingly, Azoulay proposes that the civil contract of photography consists of mutual obligation without an overarching sovereignty. What we renounce in this contract is exclusive image rights, on the part of both photographer and subject. What we gain is the right to “see through the gaze of another” and the “obligation to defend the gaze in order to make it available for others to enter and intermingle.”

Azoulay’s claim strikes me as in equal measure exhilarating and troubling. I do want to be a world citizen and have always wanted my personal archive of negatives to become common property, so that it will be both protected and useful. After all, my work as a writer frequently involves the study of archival images, and I assert my freedom to draw on those as I will. I respond deeply to the idea that a picture is valuable both for its inexhaustibility of interpretation and for the possibility it offers of showing us who needs help, in order that we may help one another. In our increasingly dark times, The Civil Contract of Photography remains excitingly optimistic, perhaps utopian.

In many places, The Civil Contract of Photography achieves a truly literary excellence, particularly in its strangely beautiful discussions of individual photographs, its exegesis of the torments of Palestinians in the occupied territories, its nuanced presentations of certain contexts and motives, and its sensitive uncovering of the horror that the privileged gaze has, in so many walks of life, almost rendered innocuous. Unfortunately, such is Azoulay’s zeal on behalf of the victims of impaired citizenship that her explication of the photographer’s role tends toward the mean-spirited. For example, in her discussion of one very sad image of some Palestinian women sitting in the sliced-open shell of their home (destroyed, evidently, by the Israel Defense Forces), she accepts Michal Heiman’s interpretation “photo rape,” a label the Israeli artist, incorporating the photograph into her work, has literally stamped across the image. “Even if the photographed women found themselves consenting” to being photographed, Azoulay writes, “the conditions in which this consent was obtained are such that their civilian autonomy has been breeched [sic], and even consent is a form of coercion. An act of rape has been committed.” Just in case we didn’t get it, she adds: “The A.P. photographer’s penetration into the private space of the photographed . . . in their demolished home multiplies the violence that destroyed their house.” Although she immediately qualifies her accusation with the reminder that “the women’s rape into being photographed occurred prior to the photographer arriving at the scene of the crime,” my hackles continue to be raised. I can imagine taking a photograph like this, under trying and even frightening conditions, motivated solely by my good angels in seeking to carry out the civil contract of photography, to show these victims to the world, in hopes of helping them or other victims. But “even consent is a form of coercion.” How would she judge Alex’s photographs? Those naked women being hustled to their deaths—was his gaze raping them?

Come to think of it, what exactly is rape? For those of you who thought you knew, here is Azoulay’s definition: “Rape is the ultimate fulfillment of woman’s being for a man.” To me, this assertion is not only as absurd as Lanzmann’s derogation of the archive but also an attack on men as such, a rejection of the hope and possibility that women and men can be for each other, a determination to see only the worst. I have neither the space nor the inclination to penetrate many of Azoulay’s voluminous remarks on this subject with my rapist’s gaze. Two will suffice. The sexual-liberation movement of the 1960s, “which women had conducted alongside men, reinforced their status as men’s hostages.” Silly me, I had thought that sexually liberated women were better off than unliberated ones. Or again: “On the walls of the modern museum, nude women have been clustered, painted by men who began to exhibit to the public the bodies of women as if it were the men who owned them. Female nudity became a masculine game conducted in public.” Because I myself am a man who sometimes shoots nude pictures of women, I evidently stand convicted.

While The Civil Contract of Photography’s value has been damaged as a result of such bitter tendentiousness, its argument remains breathtakingly inspirational: “The citizen of photography”—for instance, that vicious photo rapist the AP photographer—“enjoys the right to see because she has a responsibility toward what she sees.” It has always been my pride to feel responsible as I raise the lens to my eye in situations of misery and urgency; it has been my duty to feel, refine, and transmit that misery and urgency when it expresses itself to me in the archives of others. But although I believe in the Golden Rule, without reading this book I would most likely never have formalized what my photography ought to strive for: “When a photograph turns into a grievance, whoever articulates it becomes its civic subject.”

I want to strive harder and more effectively to articulate the grievances I witness through my lens. The civil contract of photography may be, like the notion of human rights, a “necessary fiction,” but for all that, it is noble, needful, and perhaps even practical, and I am grateful to Azoulay for expressing it.

William T. Vollmann’s latest book, Imperial, will be published by Viking in July, and Powerhouse Books will publish a companion volume of his photographs under the same title.

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