11 September - 8 December 2002.
Photographs of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, 1933-1999
“Forgetting extermination is part of extermination.”
We have all seen pictures of the concentration camps, mainly those taken when the camps were liberated. Most of the best-known photographs were massively disseminated, but usually without a caption, with no indication of the date or the photographer’s name. Shocking, often unbearable images, they were used more to reveal, even to point a finger, than to inform, as manifestos rather than documents.
Those images – or some of those images, for there were thousands – are present here. Each one, however, has been situated in its context, the means of production explained, to give it not just emotional impact but also its true value as an historical document.
The photographs taken in the camps during the war (while they were “operational”) are exhibited with the same end in mind. They are of two very different kinds: those taken by the Nazis – identity photos, propaganda images, official photos – are clear and posed (and sometimes even more terrifying as a result), in stark contrast to the pictures, far fewer in number, taken inside the camps by the deportees themselves. Blurred and snapped furtively with shaking hands, they are doubtless more compelling. Much more than symbols, they are true documents taken at risk of life by men whose death was imminent to tell us that the world desperately needed to be righted, returned to sanity, stopped from spinning out of control, as it still threatens to do.
The third part of the exhibition contains contemporary photographs, artists’ works in which the symbolic or metaphorical image also serves as a warning at a time when the memories marked in commemoration are gradually fading.
It is precisely any symbolic or metaphorical use that this exhibition rejects. The image emerged where the flow of thought no longer seemed possible. But what next? The choice of photographs and the detail in the accompanying captions will prompt us finally to overcome our emotions, to start thinking the unthinkable. As Hanna Arendt said at the Auschwitz Trial, “In the absence of truth, moments of truth will nevertheless emerge, and those moments are all we have to bring order to this chaos of horror”.