Victoria Grace Walden
Embodiment, digital technology and site visits
New twentieth century technologies of representation and narration… have increasingly collapsed the temporal distance between present, past, and future that structured our previously conceived notion of the temporal dimensions of what we call history (as the latter is differentiated from experience). That is, event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation, have moved increasingly towards simultaneity.
Having had the pleasure of being involved in one of the Holocaust Education Trust’s recent Lessons from Auschwitz projects, this quote made me think about how the project’s young participants engage with memory and history during their visit to the Nazi concentration-death camp.
The project involves 16-18 year old students from the UK attending an orientation seminar in London, a day trip to Oświęcim and Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by a second reflective seminar in London. The students then return to their school and translate their experience into some form of educational or commemorative outcome.
As part of the orientation seminar, students are encouraged to discuss a quote from Janina Struk’s Photographing the Holocaust (2003). Struck suggests that “a camera puts a distance between the person taking the photographs and an otherwise distressing experience.”
In On Photography, Susan Sontag states, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture” (quotes take from the Holocaust Education Trust handout).
Both of these stances are critical of taking photographs and suggest they diminish our experience of place, offering instead a safe barrier between us and the traumatic aura of the site we encounter. Previously I have agreed with this position. When I first started taking photographs of atrocity sites for my research, I felt awkward -as if I was intruding on someone else’s history; as if I was being disrespectful.
However, the students I spoke to were rather vehement about the importance of taking photographs. One said “it proves you were there”, another “they are memories”. Does taking photographs or video footage augment or diminish our embodied experience?
To return to the Sobchack quote, modern technology has the capability to collapse the temporal dimensions of history. It can diminish the sense of a narrative where the past is behind us, the present is what is being experienced and the future something yet to come. The individual frames of photograph or film can bring to our attention the significance of the experienced event and raise questions about the notion of history as ‘story’. Each click of the camera or press of the record button signifies an embodied moment or event detached from a wider narrative – a moment of action dictated by the body and one where choices are made by the photographer. What is it from this moment that they wish to capture? What, in the perceptual horizon in front of them, is their intentionality drawn to? What are they specifically conscious of at this moment? How does their choice of framing and positioning emphasise their corporeal experience of the site? Sobchack reminds us that consciousness is always consciousness of something and the camera can often be a tool that augments our experience of a place by allowing us to capture the specific objects of our intentionality at any given moment and return to it repeatedly. Sometimes, upon re-viewing the image we can see shapes or objects we didn’t notice with the naked eye.
The action of the click collapses the temporal dimensions of time because it highlights its subjective nature. Time is not necessarily experienced as a mythical, objective narrative that joins individual moments together. Instead, here the photographer has a relationship with the past, present and future simultaneously. This is not to say they live the time we refer to as the past, the now and a futuristic moment at once, but rather that in the moment when they click the button on their camera they instantly collapse their embodied relationship with these three temporal dimensions. That is to say, their pressing of the button identifies that they are making a conscious choice not only to look at the traces of the past in front of them, but to reflect on this past in the present moment, by taking an image that will continue to commemorate both this present and the past being reflected on, in the future.
The representation and remembering of history thus becomes an event which will eventually be sutured into the participant’s story of the Holocaust (for it is in our nature as human beings to make stories of everything even if we do not experience life as such). In the embodied action of the click of the camera they say: “Here I was, looking at the traces of what happened here. I ask you to also see. Look and remember.”
But there is always the problem of iconoclasm. At an site such as Auschwitz, which has come to stand as a symbol of the Holocaust and a symbol of evil in the public consciousness, do we take photographs of things which affect us personally or take photographs of those objects which we recognise as iconic? Are we in danger of repeating the same images and reducing the Holocaust to a set of trope photographs which could be misinterpreted as the sum of the entire event?
Sobchack, Vivian (1996) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, London, UK: Routledge.
Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography, London, UK & New York, USA: Penguin.
Struck, Janina (2004) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, London, UK & New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.