Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Photographing Atrocities

Last week my Film & Feminism class had a guest speaker, James E. Young, a professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Professor Young is an expert on the Holocaust and the memorials various peoples and nations erect in its remembrance. What began as an informal lecture turned into a night where my paradigms were shifted, especially with regards to photojournalism in general and of the Holocaust in particular.

Since our class centers around the presentation of women in film, Young began to discuss how the situat
ionality informs a new texture of history; in other words, all the Holocaust documents we have (diaries in particular) don’t vie for the correct interpretation of events, but instead enrich the overall historical knowledge of the subject. While this may seem obvious, it was important because he would transition into the different experiences between men and women in concentration camps, claiming that the different situations don’t negate each other, but inform the greater whole. And while women’s voices in the period are now being heard more clearly, especially with the recent unabridged Anne Frank diary, their voices have been oppressed in the past due mostly to traditional oppression of women.

Yet as the discussion continued, we viewed a movie produced by the US War Department and directed by Billy Wilder called Death Mills, a propaganda film that was forced to be shown before every movie in Germany while it was occupied by Americans after World War II. The violations against women were numerous. Along with rape and sexual blackmail, they were stripped, photographed, killed, and then photographed again. Any one of these events is almost too horrible to imagine, but taken together this is an overwhelming and unconscionable series of events for one person. Yet we view these pictures today, seeing through the eyes of the cameraman, perpetuating these violations ourselves. It shamed these women to be photographed naked because hey knew that strangers would be able to view
them, strangers like us.

Susan Sontag once wrote that ‘photography is essentially an art of nonintervention…the person who intervenes cannot record, and the person who is recording cannot intervene.’ Therefore, those who witness and record tragic eve
nts are in a sense responsible themselves for not intervening. Take the execution of a Viet Cong soldier by General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan during the Vietnam War. While shooting an unarmed, handcuffed soldier in the head is an unconscionable act, it was captured by a photographer and is now one of the most famous images of the war. Yet as the cover of Marvel’s The ‘Nam demonstrates, there is a missing piece to our general perceptions of the event. Since he is recording, the photographer cannot intervene; perhaps he couldn’t have changed the outcome, but the point is he didn’t even try. While we see a horrible event, the photographer quite likely thought ‘What a shot!’ Since we as viewers of the photo see through the cameraman’s eyes, we are as guilty as he for not intervening.

Maybe the most famous example of the effects of these actions upon a recorder is that of Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter. Carter's winning photo shows a heart-breaking scene of a starving child collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center during a famine in the Sudan in 1993. In the background, a vulture stalks the emaciated child. Visitors to the Sudan were informed not to touch the native populace for diseases were being spread widely at the time, so instead of intervening to help the child, he snapped the photo. Shortly after winning, Carter committed suicide because of this choice.

Now what was my big revelation? The idea that as we see through the cameraman’s eyes, we assume his place. If he is recording violations he isn’t intervening, and thus we are as guilty as he for this. We are perusing his work not as detached spectators, but as if we were there ourselves. While I cannot imagine my feelings if a close female family member were stripped, photographed, killed, and then photographed again, I do know that I wouldn’t want those photos available for strangers to see. As bad as the crimes were, the fact that anyone at any time (even right now) could be looking at such a horrific event in a detached way is an entirely different sort of grief.

Perhaps this short essay is not as concise as I has intended, but I am still processing and forming my opinion about Professor Young’s discussion. Discussion is encouraged.

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