Several years ago a book showed up on my doorstep. It has become a book that I can never fully enter into yet can never definitively put down; one might say this book and I have a troubled relationship. Its title is In the Ghetto of Warsaw, and it consists of 137 black-and-white photos, printed on exactly the kind of heavy matte paper I like, taken by a 43-year-old German sergeant named Heinrich Jöst. In September of 1941, Jöst spent a day off—his birthday—strolling through the ghetto photographing its abject, emaciated, typhoid-ridden prisoners. (He canceled his birthday party that night.) I was mesmerized—and repelled, and grieved—by these photos, and I still am. I was furious that Jöst had taken them, and grateful that he had.

The photograph has long been associated with death, and no one has done more to foster this association than Roland Barthes. In his groundbreaking book Camera Lucida, Barthes concludes that every photograph “is the living image of a dead thing”; an “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life”; a foretelling of “death in the future”: in short, a “catastrophe.” Though its subject is death, Barthes’s book is delicate and witty: a delight to read, and to contemplate.

The photograph has long been associated with death.

Heinrich Jöst’s photographs are anything but, and they raise the question of photography’s connection to death in an entirely different way. In Jöst’s book, the “living image” captures the deliberate extermination of the Jews; the “dead thing” here is no metaphor, nor is the “catastrophe” far in the future. At first glance, Jöst’s photos, which are haunting and grotesque, make Barthes’s playful abstractions seem almost obscene; and perhaps in some sense they are. Yet Jöst’s photographs do not really negate Barthes’s ideas but, rather, realize them with a vengeance, precisely by transferring them from the realm of the symbolic into that of the harshest realities. Instead of turning Barthes on his head, Jöst lands him on his feet.

Jöst’s photos are undeniably striking, but they are far from unique. In fact, they belong to a category that is, unfortunately, quite large, and which I consider the most disturbing, most extreme, most morally vexing photographic genre. These are photographs of people about to be murdered—often in the most vile circumstances. Such photos include those taken in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos; in the Nazi concentration camps, especially Auschwitz; on the eastern front in World War II; and in the prisons of Stalin and Pol Pot. I am not, however, writing about photos that show mounds of stacked corpses from the various, immense massacres of our time, although numerous such images exist, nor those of people being tortured or murdered, though these too can be found. (Saddam Hussein’s henchmen specialized in photos and films of this sort.) The photographs of which I write are not particularly violent in the strict sense of the word, nor necessarily bloody. Sometimes the people in them even look fairly normal. Some of these photos are simple portraits. These are not photographs of dead people.

They are worse than photographs of dead people, for dead people are no longer suffering. The people in these photographs are still alive, though they won’t be for long. This is something that both they and those who click the shutter know, usually; so do we, always. These are photographs of terror: not terror as an ideology but as a practice and, most of all, an experience. And regardless of what is known by the victims about their fate, these are photographs that depict human relations based on the unfettered cruelty of the powerful and the utter helplessness of those they have caught. What is so horrible about these images, then, is not always the images themselves—though sometimes they are unbearable—but the contexts in which they were taken, which is to say the histories to which they attest. These are photographs of those who dwell in what Jean Améry called “the waiting room of death.”

Germany in the interwar years was camera-crazy. It was in Weimar Germany that the photograph began to be used, experimentally, as a propaganda tool.

Such photographs—and this is both logical and counterintuitive—are usually taken by the victims’ tormentors or by those working for them, which seems to prove, if we need more proof, that not everyone is ashamed of the same things. The great hope of documentary photography, especially in its early years, was that it would confirm the family of man by illuminating the essential similarities that bind people, and peoples, to each other. And sometimes photography achieves this: beautifully so. But photography also shows that people are awfully different from one another. This is a big problem, though not for the lucky perpetrators who believe in a master race or class that definitively, and safely, separates them from others. On the contrary, the problem exists for those of us who, living in the wake of the wrecked twentieth century, still believe in a thing called the “human species” of which we are all a part and for which, alas, we must all account. As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945,

For many years now we have met Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being Germans. I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human. . . . For the idea of humanity, when purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others.

Looking at these photographs, I wonder: what kinds of responsibility, if any, do we assume in viewing them?

• • •

Germany in the interwar years was camera-crazy. It was in Weimar Germany that the first major illustrated magazines and newspapers—precursors of Life and Look—were founded, and read by millions each week. It was there that the photo essay was developed; there that the early photo agencies were established; there that photographers such as Robert Capa, László Moholy-Nagy, and Martin Munkácsi learned their craft. The Ermanox and the Leica, lightweight cameras that would revolutionize picture-taking throughout the world, were German inventions whose production surged in the Weimar era. It was in Weimar Germany that the photograph began to be used, experimentally, as a propaganda tool, and it was there that the early, influential theorists of—and against—the photographic image emerged, including Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin.

Why should this fascination with photographs abate with the Nazi assumption of power? That humiliation, brutality, torture, execution, and mass murder should not be photographed rests on the assumption that such acts are either legal crimes or morally abhorrent. But in the Third Reich the opposite was true: here was a state that was organized for the purpose of terror and extermination; these were its stated aims, and its highest. And so the Leicas continued to click; in 1936, for instance, the magazine Illustrierter Beobachter published a photo-essay called “Concentration Camp Dachau.” Indeed, it may be that no state and no army have ever been as intent on self-documentation as the Nazi state and the Nazi army; a propaganda team of writers, photographers, and filmmakers accompanied every German unit sent to the front. (And far from home, Nazi soldiers often met like-minded folk. Joe J. Heydecker, a German private, would later recall that, on the eastern front, the mass slaughters of the Jews were often witnessed by “civilians sometimes dressed only in bathing trunks and frequently with their cameras.”)

Nazi photographs—estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands if not the millions—were sometimes sanctioned from on high and sometimes taken spontaneously by soldiers on the ground. Auschwitz, for instance, had a staff of two official SS photographers (one was later convicted of war crimes), assisted by a crew of inmates.1 The Warsaw ghetto was flooded with tourists—Heinrich Jöst was only one—who came as members of propaganda units, as soldiers out on their own, or as workers on “strength through joy” trips. Thirty years after the war, a propaganda photographer named Albert Cusian, then residing near Hamburg, was interviewed by the British journalist Philip Knightley. Cusian explained with neither pride nor shame, “I photographed everything in sight. The subject matter was so interesting.”2 Testimonies by the ghetto’s prisoners reveal a somewhat different perspective. Michael Zylberberg, a prisoner in the ghetto and a teacher of Jewish history, recorded in his diary how the German visitors “gleefully photographed the dead . . . particularly . . . on Sundays, when they would visit the cemetery with their girlfriends. This, rather than a cinema, was a place of amusement for them. The bereaved regarded them with scorn and loathing.”3

No state and no army have ever been as intent on self-documentation as the Nazi state and the Nazi army; a propaganda team of writers, photographers, and filmmakers accompanied every German unit sent to the front.

All of these Nazi photographs—from the ghettos, the camps, the occupied countries, the fronts—are hard to look at; some are excruciating. Take one that has been widely reprinted and is owned by several research archives. Its origins are unclear: it has been variously attributed to Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, and dated anywhere from 1939 to 1944. Here is what the picture shows: standing at the edge of an earthen pit in what appears to be a forest are two naked men. Each clasps his hands before him, perhaps in an attempt to hide his genitals. A bit behind them is an older man, also naked, whose legs are very thin and who stands slightly hunched over; he still wears a shoe, or sock. To the left of these three stand two others: a naked man and a naked young boy who wears a cap, tilted slightly sideways. (Only the child holds his hands behind him.) Behind the five naked prisoners stand six men, some in uniform, some in neatly attired civilian clothes—coats, ties, a fedora; alongside the victims, in profile, is a uniformed soldier. Many of the clothed men—that is, the perpetrators—hold what look like canes or sticks; the soldiers of course have guns. To the far right of the frame, on a little mound of earth, stands another uniformed soldier; he points to the tableau below (though it would be hard to miss), turning his head to look straight at the camera. Not surprisingly, given its disputed history, this photograph has been captioned in several ways; the version held by the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London reads, translated from the Polish, “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution. 11.V.1943.”

What does it mean to look at such photographs? Should we? Why? And if so, how?

• • •

There are some who say we should not. To do so, these writers argue, is to place ourselves—not just physically but morally also—in the position of the photographer, which is to say of the perpetrator. Once we look at such a photo, we too wear coats and ties and fedoras while others are stripped of their clothes, their dignity, their lives; we too have neither pity nor decency; we too persecute the defenseless; we too watch in safety while others cringe in fear. These critics, who might be called the “rejectionists,” claim that such photos—taken without the victims’ consent, designed as a means of further abasement—are not just representations of cruelty but forms of cruelty itself: to look at them is to re-victimize the victims.

“The Nazis took photographs of their victims to humiliate and degrade them,” writes Janina Struk in the final chapter of her recent book, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, which opens with a full-page reproduction of the “death pit” image described above. “Are we not colluding with them by displaying them ourselves? Do we have a right to show people in their last moments before facing death . . .? Must the torment and deaths of millions be replayed on museum walls around the world for millions to watch?” Struk calls for returning these photos to the archives rather than “flaunting” them before ordinary viewers in museums and other public places (though such prohibited venues would, presumably, include books like hers). Of the victims, she concludes, “They had no choice but to be photographed. Now they have no choice but to be viewed by posterity. Didn’t they suffer enough the first time around?”

In a similar vein, others have argued that due to their very structure, and to the circumstances of their making, such photographs can only reproduce the ideology of the victimizers. The images are totalitarian in the literal sense of the word, allowing one—and only one—possible response. In this view, the fascist aesthetic dictates all: just like the fascist state. (And, apparently, even decades after the fascist state has been defeated.) The German media historian Gertrud Koch has written, “Regrettably, the assumption that something might exist in such images which would form a kind of sacred resistance against its abuse is untrue in the case of Nazi images.” And since the Nazi ideology is a lie—corresponding not to the world as it is, but to the monstrous delusions of its adherents—it would follow that photographs that reproduce it are meaningless images, incapable of imparting either knowledge or understanding. Thus, Claude Lanzmann eschewed the use of conventional Holocaust photographs—indeed, of any documentary photos—in his great filmic exploration Shoah. Photographs from the camps and the ghettos, Lanzmann has said, “do not express anything. . . . I call them images without imagination.”

German visitors ‘gleefully photographed the dead . . . particularly . . . on Sundays, when they would visit the cemetery with their girlfriends. This, rather than a cinema, was a place of amusement for them.’

It is impossible to say that Lanzmann was wrong. Certainly, his decision to forego traditional images and rely instead on witness testimony is a large part of what gives his film its startling power as a moral excavation of history. And there is no doubt that many Holocaust photographs have become visual clichés, evoking Pavlovian responses in many viewers—if they evoke anything at all. Still, there are serious, perhaps insurmountable, problems with the rejectionist school of thought.

For it is far from clear—indeed, it is baffling—why a picture taken by a Nazi can only reproduce what critics call the “Nazi gaze,” any more than reading Mein Kampf can only place us under Adolf Hitler’s spell. On the contrary, a photograph—like a book, a painting, a poem, a film, even a historic document—is open to multiple meanings; every artifact not just can but always does say unintended things. (This does not mean that truth is relative, only that it is not singular.) When I read Mein Kampf, I am introduced to the ravings of a lunatic; I find the book not mesmerizing, but repellent. (I would find it silly had it remained merely a book.) When I look at the quivering, naked figures in the death-pit photo, or at the filthy, dead-eyed inhabitants of the ghettos, I do not see the contemptible weakness of the Jewish “vermin,” which I suppose is what the Nazis intended; I see the barbarism of the perpetrators. In fact, these photos say very little about Jews, other than what was done to them, but they say an awful lot about their German conquerors. Although often taken to expose the supposedly subhuman attributes of the victims, the photos condemn those who staged them by revealing the madness of their hatred: they measure, one might say, just how far outside humanity the Nazis had thrust themselves. (That this was done with pride and pleasure, as so many of the pictures attest, does make it worse.) The photographs are evidence of what was done to the Jews, but they are self-portraits of Nazi degradation. Or so it seems to me.

And not just to me. Even—or especially—at the time these photographs were taken, they were used in ways that were entirely unanticipated by their makers. Starting in 1933, photographs documenting Nazi barbarism had circulated outside Germany, but with the invasion of Poland in 1939 and of the Soviet Union two years later, Western governments, embassies, newspapers, and anti-fascist organizations were flooded with what Janina Struk calls a “glut” of “atrocity photographs.” Some of these photos were taken by Soviet photographers or by Jewish and, especially, Polish partisans (the Polish underground ran its own photography network), all of whom hoped to alert the world to the unfolding catastrophe. But many such photos were snapped by the Nazis themselves—sometimes, somehow, smuggled out, or taken off the bodies of dead German soldiers; other images were explicitly produced as pro-Nazi propaganda. Then they were turned against their makers. In Britain, for instance, the leftist Victor Gollancz (publisher of George Orwell) published The Yellow Spot: The Extermination of the Jews in Germany in 1936; most of its photos were taken from Nazi publications, as were those in two later anti-Nazi books, The German New Order in Poland (1942) and The Black Book of Polish Jewry (1943). Newspapers in the Allied countries published photographic evidence of Nazi crimes including humiliations, beatings, shootings, hangings, mass executions and deportations; the “overwhelming majority” of these images, Struk writes, came from Nazi sources.

In short, Nazi photographs were used to expose Nazi brutality while the actual Nazi state was threatening the civilized world. Viewing them was not a form of what Struk calls “collusion” but, rather, a spur to outrage and action (at least hopefully). Why, then, should the Nazi vision be considered impenetrable now? Why should we 21st-century viewers, sitting in comparative comfort in New York, Berlin, or Paris, be more intimidated by the Nazi world view than those who organized resistance in the cellars of Warsaw or sought safety in the bomb shelters of London? Why can we not see through these photographs, rather than stare at them in mute submission; why can we not view them as revelations, rather than reproductions, of fascist values?

If a strangling Nazi vision did exist, it would presumably be easily identifiable. For despite ongoing attempts to normalize the Holocaust as simply an extreme form of either anti-Semitism or modernity, many Nazi practices were in fact unprecedented; surely, then, photographs taken in their service would leave a strong and unmistakable mark. And some certainly do: who but a perpetrator—and a sadist—could have staged the death-pit photograph? Yet when viewing at least some Holocaust images, especially those from the ghettos, it is not always possible, much less easy, to tell who shot which photograph or why. A photographer’s identity and his aims are only two of the many factors that determine the kind of photograph he will take.

A photograph is open to multiple meanings. Nazi photographs were not merely evidence of collusion, they were also instigators of outrage and action.

In fact, Nazi photographers have bequeathed to us some if not most of the iconic images of the Holocaust’s horror. Take, for instance, the widely reproduced picture of a small, dark-haired boy in short pants and a cap, his hands raised in the air as he is rounded up for deportation. It was taken in May 1943 by a Nazi soldier for the infamous, generously illustrated Stroop Report, which boasted of the successful “termination” of the Warsaw ghetto’s Jews. How many people today—indeed, how many people in 1943—would see this boy the way General Stroop did? The photo speaks to me of the boy’s terror, helplessness, and innocence rather than of the killers’ admirable efficiency, and in this respect I am, I’m pretty sure, a far more ordinary person than was Jürgen Stroop.

The kind of ecology of vision—the reverential cordoning off of Holocaust photographs—that Struk and others call for is not echoed everywhere. Nor can the “good” images, taken as a form of resistance, be easily separated from those with a soiled lineage. In the Warsaw Ghetto, Summer 1941, a book published in New York in 1993, combines photographs taken by a Nazi soldier named Willy Georg with excerpts from the secret diaries kept by the ghetto’s prisoners; a Georg photo is, also, prominently displayed on the front cover of Struk’s book. A published edition of the diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, a Lodz ghetto inmate, is adorned with a photo by Walter Genewein, the ghetto’s chief Nazi accountant. Ironically, those who are closest to the victims often seem least interested in assessing the purity of a photograph’s origins. It was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust archive and museum in Israel, that snapped up Jöst’s photos—and exhibited them worldwide—after the German magazine Stern turned them down; the Israeli museum also co-published The Auschwitz Album, a series of Nazi photographs from the camp. Even in death—even decades later—executioners and victims are entwined; there is no vision, nor refusal of vision, powerful enough to free them.

• • •

It is true, as the rejectionists have argued, that viewers often have the “wrong” reactions to photographs of cruelty; these might include contempt for the victims, a sense of moral superiority, false complacency, boredom, or even a prurient fascination that can border on pleasure. I am not sure, though, what the right reactions would be.

Indeed, the impossibility of reacting to these photos “correctly,” spontaneously, or on the basis of ordinary human intuitions is a key to the most diabolical aspect of the Nazi project. It is a key, that is, to the fact that the victims were shoved into an unprecedented black hole in which normal human instincts became crimes; in which the survival of one was predicated on the annihilation of many others; and in which extraordinary, indeed unthinkable, forms of degradation became common. The Nazis aimed not only to murder people but to destroy them before their deaths, primarily by eradicating the ordinary bonds of self-respect, consideration, and mutual dependence that, in normal times, connect us to each other and make social life possible, if not always good. In the Nazi universe, in contrast, each survival decision presented to the victims was so brutal and so weird that “it further diminished the humanity of those who made it,” as George Steiner has written. “To live was to choose to become less human.”4 What is a natural reaction to this?

Because photographs from the Nazi period evoke—though obviously in attenuated form—this demented universe of moral nihilism, our typical, and certainly logical, reactions to suffering are frequently upended when we look at them. That is why it is hard to decide which kind of Holocaust photograph is worse: the ones that reveal the horror or the ones that hide it. Take, for instance, a collection of photos by Henryk Ross that was published last year in England as Lodz Ghetto Album.

Ross, who was born in 1910, had been a sports photographer for a Warsaw paper before the war. After imprisonment in the Lodz ghetto, he was one of two photographers employed by the Department of Statistics; in this capacity he took official photographs for the ghetto administration. Surreptitiously, though, he also took thousands of photos that documented the real face of ghetto life and death. Ross and his wife, Stefania, were among the five percent of ghetto inmates who survived; after the war they remained in Lodz and then, in 1950, moved to Israel, where Ross worked as a photographer and zincographer. He died in 1991.

In the section of the book the editors have called “Public,” Ross’s photos portray the despair and degradation of the ghetto as it was lived in full view: the filthy, barefoot people on the streets with their battered aluminum soup bowls; the corpses on the sidewalks; the public executions; the human mules straining as they lugged heavy wagons of excrement (soon the carriers would die of typhus); the mutilated faces, disfigured by deep and bloody gashes, of those killed in the roundup of September 1942, which targeted the young, the old, and the sick. (One especially ugly photograph of this event shows Jewish policemen grabbing ill people who, slated for deportation, were trying to escape through the hospital’s windows.) There are harrowing photos, taken up close, of the deportations:an elderly woman, one eye swollen shut, grimaces as she is forced onto a cart; a girl in a pretty flowered skirt enters a pre-transport prison; a young boy sells a little something to an older, gaunt man behind barbed wire. We see streams of people walking toward their doom, carrying sacks of belongings they will not need. (Those sacks suggest an optimism about the future that in retrospect may seem pathetic or grotesque but, at the time, was apt. For why is it the job of the victims to imagine their own extermination? How could Auschwitz—a highly unusual place—have been envisioned by those who did not plan it?) And everywhere, everywhere, the yellow stars appear, like little crazy sparks of hatred: we see them sewn onto armbands, and onto coats front and back, and hanging on pendants around children’s necks. Even the scarecrow guarding a scrawny plot of land wears one.

But it is another set of Ross’s photographs, called “Private” and previously unpublished, that cause the biggest shock, though at first one greets them with desperate relief. Here, for instance, is a photo of five children who sit on the floor while they eat a meal. Unlike the others we have seen—stunted, wrinkled figures draped in rags—these look like children. They have ample skin on their bones and smooth, unlined faces; they wear clean clothes, and shoes and socks; they do not look cowed, beaten, or starved. One girl, a ribbon in her hair, even impishly smiles as she opens her mouth wide for what looks—could it be?—like a nice soup dumpling. Another photo in this series shows a smiling woman in a polka-dotted bathing suit as she feeds her fat, naked child in a leafy backyard. Here is a shyly smiling little boy with a teddy bear almost as big as he; there is a wedding celebration attended by a score of handsome revelers. Seated at a long table loaded with bottles, candlesticks, china, and silverware, they smoke and smile.

For Susan Sontag, photographs could never lead to ‘ethical or political knowledge.’ John Berger saw photographs of violence as a kind of violence themselves. And Roland Barthes disparaged photographs as ‘stupid’ and ‘undialectical.’

But something is wrong, terribly wrong, with these pictures of wonderfully ordinary life. (Wrong, that is, even apart from the yellow stars.) The children’s photos, we learn, were probably taken in September 1943—almost a year after most of the ghetto’s children had been deported for gassing at Chelmno. It was primarily the children of the ghetto administrators, and those whose parents had agreed to round up others, who were reprieved. Indeed, most of the people in these pictures, who still look healthy and human, were almost certainly members of the ghetto elite (a decidedly relative term): policemen, members of the Judenrat, those with money. At worst, they were collaborators; at best, they were protected from, and inured to, the suffering around them. And one more thing: within a year almost all of them, and their children, would be murdered.

How are we to regard such pictures—or, rather, the people in them? Were they monstrously indifferent to others, or tragically ignorant of their own impending fate? Undoubtedly they were victims; were they opportunists too? Do we exult that some were saved, if only for a short time? Is it a victory that some were able, almost to the end, to carry on with family life? What does it mean to save one child’s life at the expense of another’s? In short, do Ross’s photos show something valiant or something hideous? To look at them is to be twisted by such questions, to be enraged that they can even be asked, and to know that answers to them are necessary to seek and impossible to find.

Heinrich Jöst’s photos present problems, and questions, of a very different sort—though they are not in any sense crude Nazi propaganda or overtly sadistic. Jöst made these photos for his private use, and he kept them hidden for decades after the war. (He did not, at the time, tell his family about his day in the ghetto nor show them the pictures: “I didn’t want to make my wife and relatives feel uncomfortable,” he later explained.) In 1982, he took the photos to the journalist Günther Schwarberg; In the Ghetto of Warsaw, which Schwarberg edited, was published in Germany in 2001. It includes reminiscences of what Jöst’s publisher calls his “walk through Hell” by the photographer himself, who was 84 when Schwarberg interviewed him. These recollections run as captions below the photos.

Jöst’s pithy comments do not support the ever-resilient hope that time brings wisdom. It is not that Jöst was a cruel or hateful man; there is not evidence of that. He seems simply to have been a vacant man, strangely oblivious—even years later—to the import of what he saw and did, and of the essential relationship between the ghetto’s inhabitants and himself. (He was wearing his Nazi uniform when he took the pictures.) Often Jöst poses particularly clueless questions—he wonders, for instance, “Who were the survivors among those people I photographed?”—which suggest that a significant chunk of his country’s history had, somehow, passed him by.

But if Jöst seems maddeningly obtuse, his photographs do not; here is proof positive of the adage that the camera always sees more than the photographer. Jöst was not photographing surreptitiously, and he was able to get close to the people on the street. Many of them, though no doubt wary, looked directly at him and his camera.

Jöst’s pictures are far more graphic than most of Ross’s. Many of Jöst’s images—of the pits stacked with naked corpses, of the bald skeletons expiring on the sidewalks—eerily presage those of the camps. Oftentimes his subjects literally crawl on the pavement, their legs withered into matchsticks, their faces contorted with pain, rage, or madness. The ghetto swarmed with abandoned children and orphans, and Jöst often shot one gaunt sibling pitifully caring for another. One such shot, taken from above, shows two girls sitting on the pavement, their heads wrapped in scarves; one looks up at the camera, the other sideways at her sister or friend. But they are like no girls I have ever seen. Their faces look not just hollow but positively smashed in; they seem almost feral. Jöst’s portraits are the perfect visual accompaniment to a Gestapo memorandum, written in August 1942, that would forthrightly observe, “It is increasingly clear on the faces of the ghetto residents that the Jews of Europe will not survive this war.”

One of Jöst’s saddest photos does not show death or obvious starvation. Instead, we see a man, not yet old (two years earlier, he might have been young), sitting on a chair on the sidewalk as he plays a violin; in the lower left corner of the frame a small, alarmed child looks at the camera as he rushes by. The musician wears a fedora that seems too big for his newly hollow face, a dark shirt (white armband clearly showing),5 and a pair of trousers that are baggy but still intact. The violin is perched on the man’s left shoulder; the bow is held in his right hand. It is the violinist’s expression as he looks at Jöst—and, now, at us—that is so terrible. He grimaces slightly, as if he is aware of what he has become but cannot understand how; as if he knows that his music—his last thread to the sane world—will not save him; as if he hopes for a moment of recognition yet is sure, almost, that it will not come. Struggling for dignity, he looks all too aware of his bewildered shame. “This man was playing the same notes on his violin over and over,” Jöst recalls. “His eyes followed me.”

An even worse photograph shows a haggard old woman with a wrinkled face and short, light-colored hair as she stands on the street; pasted onto the wall behind her are the tattered remains of symphony-concert posters. The woman wears a flowered dress under a loose black coat, her white armband with the blue star brightly visible. She is weighed down by a weird assortment of what look like rolled bandages that boomerang off her at odd angles. Some are attached to her clothes with safety pins, others dangle from her left hand, which she holds away from her body; strips of white material hang from her waist. The bandages, and the material, are Star of David armbands: she is selling the padded kind. (Though armbands were mandatory, they were certainly not free.) The woman’s eyes are almost closed, though whether from exhaustion, grief, or illness we cannot know.

To my mind, this is one of Jöst’s most disgusting photographs—more so, even, than those of the beggars and corpses—for it shows how the victims were forced to collude in their own degradation and to become “workers” in the system designed to annihilate them. When I look at Holocaust photographs I long to see rebellion, resistance, revenge; this is something that Heinrich Jöst did not, could not, show. But that does not mean his pictures are a lie.

• • •

The rejectionists believe that nothing can, or maybe should, be gained from looking at Holocaust photographs, or at least from the vast majority that were taken by the perpetrators. At the other end of the spectrum we find those who endow looking at such images, and perhaps the act of looking itself, with an elevated spiritual and moral meaning. One might call these critics “believers,” for they have faith that we can enter into these photographs—which means entering into the victims’ experiences—and then, at least symbolically, set the world right. Theirs is a kind of visual transubstantiation, in which the suffering of the victims is absorbed by the onlooker and the burden of pain eased if not lifted. If the rejectionists think that an almost sacred distance must be kept between the world of the photos—the world of incomprehensible suffering—and our own, the believers don’t recognize much of a distance at all.

In this view, it is possible to create an empathetically human bond with the victims—albeit posthumously—by imagining their travails. Such a view implicitly rests, as the critic Andreas Huyssen wrote in the context of Holocaust memorials, on the “magical power of image projection,” sustained by the hope that “real difference, real otherness” can be erased. One exponent of this strategy is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Upon entry, the museum pairs each visitor with the identity card of a European Jew from the 1930s, along with brief information about his or her life before the Holocaust and a pre-disaster photograph. Throughout the exhibit, the visitor carries the picture and follows the story of her virtual companion; finally, she discovers that person’s usually terrible fate.

It is easy to scoff at the artificial intimacy of this project; as Jonathan Rosen observed in the Forward, “There is a reverse principle at work here, as if everyone were expected to enter the museum an American and leave, in some fashion, a Jew.” But the impulse behind this attempted cathexis is, I think, admirable, for it tries to make the Holocaust pressing, understandable, and personal rather than remote, mysterious, and abstract. It reminds visitors that Holocaust victims had identities and stories before there was a Holocaust and before they were victims; it reminds us, that is, that they had lives that were meaningful and specific as well as deaths that were meaningless and anonymous.

Photographs—especially portraits—demand that we encounter the individual qua individual, which is precisely what fascist ideology forbids.

Nonetheless, there is something ludicrous and offensive about the identity-card project: ludicrous because the kind of hasty bonding it promotes is not just superficial but impossible; offensive because the very attempt to create this bond trivializes the horrors it tries to make real. How can an American—whether from a comfortable suburb, an inner city, or a small town—“relate to” a doomed prisoner at Sobibor or a slave of Auschwitz? The project implies that the Holocaust was an event that, although quite bad, can be understood in conventional terms. But the Holocaust was something else: it enlarged, and shattered, our very concepts of human possibility; as the critic Ulrich Baer observed, it marked the split between seeing, believing, and knowing, between “the shocking encounter with suffering and fact-based knowledge of the event.” Auschwitz ripped the 20th century into before and after: it is embedded in history but it also stopped history, and the fissure it created will not be mended through imaginative identification—or, I suspect, at all.

Yet for whatever reason, efforts to heal the unhealable wound created by the Holocaust often focus on photographic representations. Take one oft-reproduced photo that has inspired widely divergent responses. It shows the following: a woman, in profile, with a scarf on her head—she seems old, for her shoulders are stooped and her back curved—shuffles down a road. She wears a checked jacket and a loose black skirt, and she carries a bundle of rags under her left arm. Next to her is a tiny child with dark hair, too young to walk on her own, in a coat that is too long. Her hand is held by a slightly older child (a sister, perhaps?) in a shapeless coat and a scarf wrapped tight around her head; her leggings are mismatched, and she carries a small white bundle. Behind these three trails a slightly taller girl, legs bare, head covered, socks drooping, shoulders hunched. We do not see the faces of the people in this family—if they are a family—for they are retreating from us and their heads are bent. But we do see a train track running on the side of the road, and then a few iron poles strung with wires. In the far distance a lone, blurry figure sits on the ground.

Even of we know nothing of the circumstances surrounding the taking of this photograph, it evokes an almost overwhelming sense of dreary desolation. When we discover the facts, desolation deepens into dread, and grief. For the time is late May, 1944; the place is Auschwitz-Birkenau; the woman and children are Hungarian Jews in their last moments of life, walking to the gas chambers. The photograph was taken by a Nazi, or someone working for them.

It is hard to look at this photograph, and hard to look away from it. For Janina Struk, the frequent reproduction of this photo—and especially its display, in 1999, at the ruins of the camp itself—calls up a visceral rage. “Consider if you would want your last moments of a degrading and unimaginably cruel death to be flaunted world-wide,” Struk writes. “Returning their image to Birkenau may be their final humiliation.” The Australian historian Inga Clendinnen, in her book Reading the Holocaust, ponders the same image—and, like Struk, reproduces it in her book—but she comes to a different conclusion. “I cannot easily bear to look at that photograph,” she begins. But compelled, particularly, by the slightly older girl in the photo (“She is walking resolutely, with a slight air of independence,” Clendinnen surmises), she continues, “Had she lived, she would be an old woman by now. As it is, she is forever my grand-daughter, trudging toward death in shoes too big for her.”

There is something peculiar in both these responses, though each has an honorable aim. Struk’s attempt to protect the victims ignores the fact that it is far too late for protection, and that the problem with this bedraggled family is not that they were photographed but that they were murdered. It is as if Struk displaces the actual event onto the picture of the event, hurling her wrath at the former onto the latter. Clendinnen, on the other hand, wants not just to protect the victims but to save them: in her fantasy, at least, she has adopted the girl. And yet the very fact that she can fantasize denies the final, unredeemable nature of this one girl’s one death, and of the Shoah as a whole. Clendinnen’s imaginary act of salvation may soothe her—and perhaps bring her closer to the “full imaginative engagement” with the Holocaust she says she seeks—but it elides the question of why in real life, rather than picture-life, so unforgivably few were in fact rescued. The little girl in question is not “forever” Clendinnen’s granddaughter, nor will she ever be. Only her death, in its irrefutable ugliness, is forever.

• • •

And so: why look? Viewing photographs of cruelty cannot save, or even help, the victims. Even worse, looking at them can enmesh (though need not fatally trap) the viewer in the hateful perspective of the perpetrators. Surely there is nothing remotely life-affirming about such photos; indeed, they can easily inspire a range of emotions from disgust for the victims to hatred of mankind. Perhaps worst of all, such photos fail to offer any explanation for the suffering they reveal, which is fertile ground for cynicism, despair, or nihilism. Why look? One answer is located in the very limits of the photographic medium itself.

Photographs, and especially those that document political cataclysms, are often accused of tearing events out of history and, therefore, depriving them of meaning. Susan Sontag wrote that photographs can never lead to “ethical or political knowledge”; John Berger charged that, by separating historic moments from their contexts, photographs of violence perform a kind of violence themselves. Bertolt Brecht hated photographs precisely because of their non-narrative, non-explanatory character: “A photograph of the Krupp works or AEG”—arms manufacturers for Hitler—“tells us next to nothing about these institutions,” he charged. For similar reasons, Roland Barthes disparaged photographs as “stupid” and—the unkindest cut—“undialectical.”

Yet the very specificity of the photograph is also one of its great strengths. Photographs—especially portraits, though not only they—demand that we encounter the individual qua individual, which is, not incidentally, precisely what fascist ideology forbids. This encounter is not a form of sentimentality but, on the contrary, a rigorous challenge. It is not easy to talk of six million, or of anti-Semitism, or of capitalism’s highest stage, or of modernity run amok—but it is even harder, I would argue, to consider the experience of one person caught up in degradation, terror, and death. This does not mean that six million, or anti-Semitism, or capitalism, or modernity are unreal—only that they become unreal when divorced from the experience of the individuals who lived and died through them. Photographs might not elucidate the great forces of history—they may even be, as Barthes charged, “impotent with regard to general ideas”—but they are awfully good at showing us the eggs that are broken to make the omelet of history.6

It has often been said that photographs cannot register emotions, only physical attributes that suggest emotions. In a literal sense this is true: we cannot definitively know what the people in any photograph were thinking or feeling—even (or especially?) those girls starving to death on the pavement of Warsaw—unless they left some record for us. But physical attributes are not nothing; indeed, they are the beginning, and the basis, of everything. In returning us to the physical, the photograph returns us to our bodies, which is to say to our weakness and our pain.

It is not that the dead have nothing to tell us, show us, teach us; it is that we have trouble listening, seeing, learning.

This is not, I suspect, a welcome return. Many of us would like to believe that we are creatures primarily of the spirit and the intellect—and in some places and at some times, we are. But before all that, and underneath all that, we are flesh and bone; we sweat and smell and defecate; we are earthy and vulgar, awkward and ill-formed. Our skin is a laughably inadequate protection against the world, and against each other: it is not hard to pierce us, sear us, make us bleed. In fact, it is shockingly easy to destroy a man in any number of ways: to make him too hot, too cold, too hungry, too thirsty, too tired, too sick; to crush his spirit and destroy his mind through what are essentially small manipulations of his environment; to make him lose or forget or betray all that he was and all that he loves if only the pain will stop or the fear will cease or the execution will be reprieved. Recalling his torture in a Gestapo prison, Jean Améry wrote of his “astonishment at what one can become oneself: flesh and death.” He elaborated:

The tortured person never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may . . . call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering in the shoulder joints. . . . Only through torture did he learn that a living person can be transformed . . . into a prey of death.

The photograph bores through our self-flattery about strength and resistance and the triumph of the will, reminding us that we are easily broken. This is not a moral failing but a fact; it is true not of some of us but of all of us; it is cause for compassion rather than contempt. To deny our corporality is a kind of hubris, an attempt to negate the existential condition that defines us. The wonder is not that we crumble but that anyone, ever, survives the things we do to one another.

To look at a photograph is to begin to engage this individual, concrete experience of suffering, of pain, of defeat. Photographs help what Améry called “the How” to “achieve its specific dimension.” Any politics that speaks of justice, brotherhood, or human rights—any politics that claims to be “progressive,” “humane,” or “enlightened”—must start from this point of actuality. How does cruelty come to be, and what does it do to people? This, rather than grandiose exhortations to solidarity or decreasingly credible promises of “never again,” is the question we should start to explore—slowly, tentatively. The Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya has written that cruelty “is a threat to reason; it defies reflection and analysis. That is why we so often turn our backs on it, not out of lack of empathy, but out of an inability any longer to communicate. Cruelty silences.” He continues:

Cruelty and violence . . . are not the same. Violence can be justified according to the ends that it pursues (for instance, as an act of self-defense). There can be violence between equals. Cruelty, on the other hand, can never be justified because it is the intentional infliction of . . . pain on individuals who are in a position of weakness. . . . [Cruelty] has a visceral, irrational, and irrevocable quality about it. It is the bedrock under all the layers of horrible things that human beings do to one another. . . . It is political in cause and universal in effect. Its mere occurrence is an affront to everyone’s humanity.

Precisely because the world is awash (again, still) in sadistic violence, and because it is more or less silent (again, still), photographs of suffering demand contemplation. Photographs are mute, but it is through their very stillness that we might begin to speak of certain fearsome things.

Paradoxically, though, to look at a photograph of suffering is to fail to engage the experience of suffering, especially when the pain that is portrayed has been deliberately inflicted. Rather than relieve the victims of their anguish, we are faced with our utter uselessness. We cannot rescue them: we are always too late. We cannot understand what they went through—the experiential abyss is too wide—nor why they were forced to do so. (Hitler tried to explain this, but I still don’t understand.) To seek comprehension, again and again, without fully achieving it; and to know, further, that this inability is not a shortcoming but a part of our humanity—this is a task bequeathed by the Shoah. And this is why Claude Lanzmann explained that, in making his film, “Not to understand was my iron law.” There is no final solution to the questions Auschwitz poses, for it represents not the fanatical hatred of particular people or even groups of people—there is nothing new in that—but of the very qualities of being human. There is something new in that. By offering us a glimpse of experience that we can neither turn away from nor grasp, photographs teach us about necessary failure.

Sometimes, though, this failure leads to giving up. In the final chapter of her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag considers a constructed photograph by Jeff Wall, a Canadian artist. Wall made this photograph in 1992 and called it “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986).” Sontag describes Wall’s fantastical image as “the antithesis of a document”—it may well be that she had lost confidence in mere documents—and praises it as “exemplary in its thoughtfulness and power.”

Huge and surreal, Wall’s piece shows 13 Soviet soldiers who, though dead and gruesomely bloody, seem to frolic: this is war not as tragedy but as farce. “The atmosphere is warm, convivial, fraternal,” Sontag writes. “Three men are horsing around: one with a huge wound in his belly straddles another, lying prone, who is laughing at a third man, on his knees, who playfully dangles before him a strip of flesh.” She concludes:

One could fantasize that the soldiers might turn and talk to us. But no, no one is looking out of the picture. . . . These dead are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses—and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? “We”—this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don’t understand. We don’t get it. . . . Can’t understand, can’t imagine.

This is a remarkable statement, and remarkably wrong. Sontag confuses the fact that “we don’t get it,” which is undeniably true, with a presumed indifference on the part of the victims. But far from being “supremely uninterested,” those who suffer have much to tell us and have done their best to do so. This is why, before they died, they kept illegal diaries in the ghettoes, even as they starved to death; why they scrawled names and dates, with stones and in blood, on the walls of Gestapo prisons (and why men and women do so today, in torture chambers throughout the world); why they took as many photos as they possibly could, despite the threat of execution; why they tried to smuggle letters and photographs out of the camps, although every hope of survival had been smashed. Even under the most—yes—unimaginable circumstances, they beseeched us to know who they were; to acknowledge what was happening to them; to find out how they had lived and how they had died (and how different their lives were from their deaths!). Were we to give up on this most elemental task of discovery, civilization would cease, for its basic premise is the forging of continuity between generations. “Meditate that this came about,” the ordinarily understated Primo Levi commands in a tone of biblical wrath at the start of Survival in Auschwitz. I think Levi got it right far more than Sontag. It is not that the dead have nothing to tell us, show us, teach us; it is that we have trouble listening, seeing, learning.

 

Notes

1. Even the Nazis, however, balked at photographing the gassings—which, not coincidentally, are often the focus of Holocaust deniers.

2. In On Photography, Susan Sontag would observe photography’s propensity to level moral distinctions: “The urge to take photographs is in principle an indiscriminate one, for the practice of photography is now identified with the idea that everything in the world could be made interesting through the camera.”

3. German soldiers gathered their snapshots from the ghettos, the camps, and the eastern front into memento albums, sometimes casually mixing them with more ordinary images. Kurt Franz, a commandant at Treblinka, kept a memento book of the camp; he titled it “The Best Years of My Life.” An exhibit of such albums, called “Crimes of the Wehrmacht,” would create what one German critic called “a veritable war over the memory of World War II” when it travelled through Germany in the mid-1990s.

4. As Primo Levi wrote in Survival in Auschwitz, “The personages in these pages are not men.” In his view, this non-humanity included virtually everyone in the camp, from the SS men to the inmates. Of them all, Levi wrote, “Their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it, under an offence received or inflicted on someone else.”

5. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were forced to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David.

6. In a piece she called “The Eggs Speak Up,” Hannah Arendt wrote that Stalin’s “only original contribution” to socialism was to transform the breaking of eggs from a tragic necessity into a revolutionary virtue. With Stalin, “the ‘breaking of eggs’ had ceased to be an impersonal affair in which History was supposed to do all the breaking. On the contrary, those who had proclaimed themselves the protagonists of History were ordered to do it themselves.”