At Auschwitz and Elsewhere, the Trouble with Troubling Photographs

By MARTINE POWERS

Moments before this woman was killed by American military troops during the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, her picture was snapped by photojournalists who would later publish the image in Life Magazine. “Maybe this isn’t the way these people would want to show their face to the world,” said Kate Newman, journalism master’s student at New York University. Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Moments before this woman was killed by American military troops during the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, her picture was snapped by photojournalists who would later publish the image in Life Magazine. “Maybe this isn’t the way these people would want to show their face to the world,” said Kate Newman, journalism master’s student at New York University. Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

OWIECIM, POLAND—The FASPE journalists had seen the images many times in the preceding week: A series of blurry photographs, snapped clandestinely in a corner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

And still, it was unsettling to see the photos displayed at the spot where they were taken on the camp grounds: A fuzzy image of women, naked, being driven toward the gas chambers, and two later photos that show the Sonderkommandos, prisoners charged with disposing of gas chamber victims, dragging those bodies to be cremated.

The next day, the 12 journalists sat down to discuss their thoughts on the ethical implications of those photographs, and other visual portrayals of violence.

“Gruesome photos of death and violence are as old as photography itself,” said Andie Tucher, director of the communications Ph.D. program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “This kind of photography has been available from the beginning.”

Though gut wrenching, ghastly photos of bodies piled in a ditch in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp were not groundbreaking in the stunning portrayal of death and destruction; the FASPE fellows viewed similar photos, taken about 80 years earlier, of dead soldiers lying in a ditch in Antietam during the American Civil War.

Given the long history of photojournalism and violent conflict, it caused these questions: What limitations exist on photographs’ ability to convey information? And to what extent must we also rely on captions to truly understand the moment captured on film? (“If you want to trick someone with a photograph … You don’t need Photoshop,” wrote documentarian Errol Morris. “All you need to do is change the caption.”)
Although they are often treated as irrefutable evidence, photographs are open to interpretation.

“People are wowed and charmed and fascinated by the realism of photography,” Tucher said, “but they’re still trying to figure out the relationship between photography and real life.”

During the discussion, fellow Danielle Tcholakian, commented on a 1943 photo depicting five Jewish prisoners in Ukraine, stripped naked in front of German soldiers, moments before they were to be executed. It is clear from the manner that picture was taken that the photographer’s original intent was to glorify the efficiency of Nazi killing power, Tcholakian argued; now, in a different context, the photo evokes disdain for the barbarism and cowardice of the perpetrators.

“The caption changes you — it changes your relationship with the picture,” said Tcholakian.

And it’s not always easy to decide whether to publish a graphic depiction of violence in the first place. There often exists a tension, Tucher said, between the compelling public interest of publishing a photo and the potential ramifications for the subjects and their families.

Photographs have depicted dead American soldiers face down in the sand in a WWII South Pacific battle, the depraved acts of prison guards at Abu Ghraib, the last moments of life for Jews on their way to the gas chambers, or the grisly injuries sustained by victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. But in publishing these images, does the media victimize these people and their families a second time, showing their moment of vulnerability and suffering again and again and again?

“Maybe this isn’t the way these people would want to show their faces to the world,” said fellow Kate Newman, responding to a 1968 photo of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

But fellow Dustin Volz, argued that the need to educate the world about atrocities — and to accurately document them — sometimes trumps the impulses to shield victims from such a public depiction of suffering.

“If we decide it’s unethical to view these, then it leaves only unethical people to view them,” Volz said.

It’s an argument also espoused by journalist Susie Linfield in her book Cruel Radiance. “[The] attempt to protect the victims from our prying eyes ignores the fact that the time for protection has long since passed,” Linfield writes, “and that the problem for this bedraggled family was not that they were photographed but that they were killed.”

The FASPE journalists also wondered: What happens to us, as spectators, when we view these graphic photographs?

Susan Sontag argues that the effects of such documentation aren’t always positive. “Images anesthetize,” Sontag writes. “The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary — making it appear familiar, remote … inevitable.”

It’s a sentiment with which some of the FASPE journalists said they could empathize after spending two days exploring the somber grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Witnessing the site in person is a jarring experience, even though the images of the camp — the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, the piles of shorn human hair, the miles of barbed wire fencing — are ubiquitous.

For some, the act of taking photos during the visit, carefully composing images in the frame of the lens, offered a respite from the challenges of being there. For others, there just seemed to be something too unsettling about the prospect of taking photos at Auschwitz.

“It was something in me that I really couldn’t make myself do it,” said fellow Samantha Pickette. “I felt like I couldn’t be a journalist there.”

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