Absence in Landscape Photography: “The Enigmatic Structure of Traumatic Memories”

by Jeremy R. Strong

On January 27th, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. As the years have passed, attention to and interest in events of commemoration has increased remarkably, as it becomes clear that relatively soon, the last surviving witnesses and victims of Nazi directed genocide will pass away. Commemorative stories about Auschwitz and other sites of Nazi genocide, are prominent feature stories in late January in part due to the efforts of The United Nations in 2005 to declare January 27th “International Holocaust Remembrance Day”. I argue that this commemoration both carries on an inarguably important tradition of Holocaust remembrance and also signifies a sort of witness absence panic driven by the nature of the aging population of survivors. In other words, such symbolic annual events, as well intentioned as they are, problematize the remembering of the Holocaust by situating it firmly as event, and not as experience. This is apparent in the emphasis placed upon the “anniversary” of the liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years as of Tuesday January 27th, 2015. Many news reports and historical accounts, by drawing attention to the passage of time between the date of liberation and today, place temporal focus on the tradition of memory itself, rather than on the complex span of time (6 years) during which the Holocaust unfolded upon its most direct victims. This essay focuses on the two extremes of presence and absence in photography in order to help situate how conscientious global citizens can remember the Holocaust without forgetting the individual victims of it. To that end, I find it useful to first examine a sort of hyper-presence that super-cedes the bounds of individuality in subject photography, before draining the art of the photograph of all subjectivity to highlight what is lost between the two forms. In doing so I turn to a very recent image of a Holocaust survivor visiting Auschwitz and juxtapose this image with two landscape photographs examined by Ulrich Baer.

The first photograph requires contextualizing, not only for its concerning generalization of victim identity, but also for the fact that it seems to represent the normal approach taken in media documentation of the memorialization of the Holocaust. The example photograph shown here (see Figure 1) accompanied Rex’s Murphy’s commentary of Saturday, January 31st, when he wrote the following in a short piece for the National Post:

January 27th was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most infamous beyond infamy of the Nazi factories of torment and death. It was here the “blood-dimmed tide” unleashed by Hitler reached its most swollen, where a million Jews went in unspeakable humiliation and pain to their end. Anniversaries, perhaps especially those of the most grim event, provoke recollection, and in the case of the Holocaust in particular are meant to reinforce memories. “Lest we forget” is not an idle injunction. Some things have to be remembered (National Post, Murphy). Murphy’s commentary is itself significantly problematic for its focus on the statistics behind Auschwitz, drawing attention to the “million Jews” exterminated in an all too common quantifying of Auschwitz as an infamously noteworthy event, as though numbers alone are the determining factor. A tendency towards this form of numerical based discourse supresses and limits the individuality and divergent nature of human experience, and, in the case of Murphy’s piece on Auschwitz, completely ignores the survivors, despite the fact that one of them is utilized for the image that accompanies the article, but is nowhere named.

The nameless man in the photograph becomes only a symbol for the memory of Auschwitz as event and not a person who experienced its terrifying landscape and the devastating tortures and humiliations Murphy alludes to. My concern about this issue began to mount when two hours of carefully searching the Internet to learn the man’s name were spent in vain. The only distinct piece of identifying information I was able to find to link to this man’s photograph, was the stock footage numbering of the photo service that owns the image, imprinted in the bottom left corner. The eerie nature with which this photograph inadvertently re-perpetrates the numbering of the survivor is to me the absolute epitome of the uncanny, forcing a sort of cognitive dissonance to take hold of my experience of the kind but sad face of this man as also a spectral representation of the many dead, invisible and unnamed victims of the Holocaust. This figure demands of the spectator the same kind of “responsibility and answerability” implied by Derrida’s theorization of ghostly subjects in Specters of Marx, as outlined by Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren in The Spectralities Reader (33). In a sense, this man is a hyperreal figure because he is drained of personal identity, yet represents so much in his standing in for the millions of victims mentioned by Murphy. He carries the weight of the dead in his face, conjured by the words of the article but also the responsibility of representing the countless unseen and never mentioned survivors; he is nobody and everybody all at once.

News media is vast in its expanse and not all writing and documentation about the Holocaust can be specifically survivor oriented of course, but I would argue that the responsibility lies as much with the consumer of media as with its publisher to identify areas of harmful oversight. Just as some reporting ignores the individual, perhaps in the service of “the story”, some is distinctly in the service of chronicling human individuality and recuperating lazy, profit-motivated reporting like that demonstrated by the National Post article cited above. Perhaps the best example is Matthew Fishbane’s January 2014 collaborative project and article, “Soon There Will Be No More Survivors”, published for the online magazine Tablet. The article makes use of a digital presentation featuring photographic portraits of living survivors by photographer Jason Florio and includes simple but candid descriptions of the survivors, as they are now, most of them in their precarious mid-nineties. The stated purpose of the entire endeavour is, as Fishbane indicates, to draw attention to the human beings behind stories of human rights abuse; as the by-line for the project clearly indicates, “We say people must remember theHolocaust in the future, but we’re ignoring its victims today”. As vastly different as Fishbane’s approach is from that of the National Post, the two similarly represent the Holocaust through the presence of the human face and body, up close and surrounded by the markers of human society.

Ulrich Baer draws attention to a very similar problem to that identified by Fishbane, only by using a completely different methodology. In Baer’s essay “To Give Memory a Place: Contemporary Holocaust Photography and the Landscape Tradition” he writes of the way in which the very word Holocaust, “triggers a surge of derivative and familiar mental images, most of which originate with a number of news photographs taken by the Western Allies in 1945 after the liberation of camps in Austria and Germany” (423). The “familiar mental images” that Baer is drawing attention to are most notable in their difference from the landscape photographs that are the subject of his chapter in The Spectralities Reader. That difference is clearly marked for me in the focus of most of these news photographs on three basic types of image: People, living, dead, or about to die; objects infused with traumatic human significance; and remarkable devastation to man-made structures, spaces and cities. A good example of how these types of images make up the most prevalent depictions of war can be seen in Yevgeny Khaldei’s book Witness to History, a famous compilation of war photography in which there is not a single photograph that doesn’t depict one of the types of images mentioned above, if not all three at once. This demonstrates an understanding—if only through the methods of cataloguing war photography—that the human form, or forms of the human, or the human formed, are necessary to contextualize events. This seems sensible at first; after all, how are we to learn from a human past that is devoid of us? However, Baer’s reading of the landscape photographs of Dirk Reinartz and Mikael Levin suggests that it is precisely the tendencies to remember based only on presence that allow us to ignore the illusory experiences of the vanished. The standard for images of spaces that have been marked by mass killings, Baer explains, are “oversaturated referents of ruin: crumbled buildings once built to kill and now maintained and “museumized” for purposes of commemoration; the scraps of barbed wire; the memorial stones” (419-20).

Confronting the standard role that photography plays in the process of witnessing is an important tradition for Baer to mark, before moving on to assert that the photographs of Sobibor and Ohrdruf “force us to see that there is nothing to see there; and they show us that there is something in a catastrophe as vast as the Holocaust that remains inassimilable to historicist or contextual readings” (420). In other words, the palpable absence present in both of these images is somehow more telling of the events of the Holocaust than any narrative, more explicit than any image of nameless starving and skeletal forms and more vastly unfathomable than Rex Murphy’s insistence on victim quantification. The image of Sobibor, as Baer notes, forces us to question, “why does nothing grow in the sandy patches at the front?” (416). I would argue that further to this, the vacant space, retaining only the spectral scarring of human presence, forces us to wonder what doesn’t grow because of the sandy patches at the front. Which lives will never take shape between the past and the present, filled with the joy and with the sorrow that mark our little time on earth? Which families are never to branch out, like the limbs of a tree to press into the thickening forest of the human story? And which individuals will never leave some trace of their presence, never alter the future, never see man walk on the moon, never become dancers, never get divorced or never regret the choices they could never make? These kinds of frustrating and unanswerable questions are all that can be asked in the space of “the photographed void” that expose both historicist and formal approaches to these photographs as “insufficient” (420). These types of questions are not raised by the hyperreal image of the nameless man shown in the National Post or by the more carefully considered individuals in the Florio photos.

Despite the unique, grave and unexpected philosophical access to the Holocaust granted by the landscape photos, they still cannot (as Baer asserts through reference to Hannah Arendt) explain or show “the abyss opened by the Nazis’ crimes” but only “place us in relation to it” (420-21). Viewing the two photographs then, is a sort of displaced experience of traumatic space; displaced both by time (we can’t be then) and space (we are not there), but also by the unconquerable impossibility of the absent experience of the victim. Our experience in relation to an experience that can’t be lived causes the cognitive dissonance that makes the empty landscape fill with meaning. But the various meanings that do occupy this experienced space are traumatic memories of what never was, and so at best, as Baer points out, they are “enigmatic” in recalling “scenes of death and destruction” (421-22). The stake of Baer’s reading of trauma photography’s power to reorient the viewer position in relation to a historical event begs a return to the question of what the best approaches to represent and confront the Holocaust might be given the encroaching reality of the looming disappearance of the “last survivors and witnesses” (422). This is of course a time-sensitive question, and Baer indicates the danger of any impression that “Hollywood creations, national and local museums” and “television”, ensure there will be “very little difficulty in remembering, representing, and communicating the Holocaust” (422). It is exactly the confidence in the accessibility of the Holocaust experience that hides that experience from view, even while the closest access point, the survivors, are living among us all around the world.

With this discussion motivated by the destabilizing absences that inhabit landscapes, it makes sense now to turn briefly to the very nature of landscape itself. Is landscape automatically infused with spectrality through its possession by and of absence, or is there a required precondition or event specific to that space? In the introduction to Part Five of the Spectralities Reader, “Possessions: Spectral Places”, Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren indicate that haunting attaches itself to place through “specific events—often cataclysmic” that have occurred in those spaces previously, a great example being the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that informs much of Anthony Vidler’s essay “Buried Alive” (395). But they also draw attention to a more everyday experience of haunted space, through their example of Freud’s finding “alienation in the recognizable” during a walking tour of Italy (396). Freud marks out his experience, based on the repetition of continually stumbling upon the same red-light district, as uncanny, though no discernible cataclysmic trauma took place there, aside from what he calls the “unintended recurrence of the same situation” (396). It seems then that an uncanny experience of place such as is depicted in Freud’s situation requires some kind of presence to appear first to the person who later experiences the trauma. In Freud’s case, this could be the “painted ladies”, the “narrow street” (implying the close proximity of the buildings) or the “excited” attention (396). In a very similar sense, in his essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living among Spectres”, Giorgio Agamben’s insistence on the spectral status of Venice, depends first on the physical presence of a cadaverous Venice (473). He defines the specter as that which is made of “signs, or more precisely of signatures, that is to say, those signs, ciphers, or monograms that are etched onto things by time” (474). But what about spaces whose spectral nature is actually defined by the absence of all of those things, such as the landscapes discussed by Baer? What also do we make of the landscape photograph more generally, that which is void of all human trace save the presence of the camera and everything that such presence is connotative of? Is such connotation the “signature” or “etching” enough to bring us into contact with unintended recurrences of traumatic memories that then seep in and give a menacing quality to landscape absence?

In writing of Reinartz and Levin’s reliance on the landscape tradition more generally, Baer claims “it is the unavailability of referential markers, and not information that could be embedded in historical contexts, that is captured in these images as the truth of history” (423). In other words, trauma could be effectively remembered and honestly depicted by absence, and the most haunting manifestation of spectrality is not that which we can follow or detect through trace, signature or sign, but that which seems to present none, yet nevertheless exists as a palpable absence within a landscape. Baer taps into this idea when he discusses Levin’s father’s war diary and its focus on the fact that there was nothing to see in an abandoned SS camp and that the nothing Baer was seeing, was everywhere (426-7). Nothing is precisely what can draw attention to everything.

The power of traumatic memory to manifest in seemingly empty space, in one sense reveals that a reconsideration of absence might be required, as Baer’s landscape photographs serve as more thoughtful areas of inquiry into the tradition of Holocaust memory than the close up image of the unnamed victim does. As Baer points out, the paradox is “that “landscapes” are never found in nature, but are the products of “our culturally specific ways of seeing” (427), which make them similar to unnamed photographs of Holocaust victims in that unfortunate sense, which in turn demonstrate a culturally ingrained tendency to see survivors as numbered victims. People see landscapes as filled with spectral absences, and this fact alone could bring the spectator into a confrontation with the uncanny. It is important however, that spectrality does not becomes as forcefully embodied in living presence as I have argued takes place through the National Post’s use of a Holocaust survivor as stock image and not an individual. With Holocaust survivors an increasingly dwindling population, the stakes of acknowledging not only their experiences during the holocaust, but during their lives now, have never been higher.

Figure 1: This Image of an unnamed Holocaust survivor accompanied the Murphy opinion piece in The National Post, on January 31st, 2015. Note the echo of the Auschwitz camp serial number on the sash in the watermarking of the source photograph.


Sean Gallup via Getty Images

A member of an association of Auschwitz concentration camp survivors walks through the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ entrance gate after laying wreaths with other members at the execution wall at the former Auschwitz I concentration camp on January 27, 2015 in Oswiecim, Poland. International heads of state, dignitaries and over 300 Auschwitz survivors are attending the commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops on 27th January, 1945. Auschwitz was among the most notorious of the concentration camps run by the Nazis during WWII and whilst it is impossible to put an exact figure on the death toll it is alleged that over a million people lost their lives in the camp, the majority of whom were Jewish.

Gallup, Sean. Getty Images. Image No. 462335536. GettyImages.ca. Accessed January 31st, 2015. Web.http://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/news-photo/member-of-an-association-of-auschwitz- concentration-camp-news-photo/462335536?Language=en-GB

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Works Cited

Baer, Ulrich. “To Give Memory a Place: Contemporary Holocaust Photography and the Landscape Tradition” in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. Peeren, Esther and Pilar, del Maria, eds. Bloomsbury, New York: 2013. Print.

Blanco, Maria Del Pilar and Peeren, Esther. “Possessions: Spectral Places Introduction” in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. Peeren, Esther and Pilar, del Maria, Eds. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Fishbane, Matthew. “Soon There Will Be No More Survivors”. Tablet, Tabletmag.com, Jan. 27th, 2014. Accessed January 28th, 2015. Web.

Murphy, Rex. “Rex Murphy: Remembering Auschwitz and the enormity of evil”. The National Post online. Web. Accessed Saturday, January 31st, 2015. <http://news.nationalpost.com/2015/01/31/rex-murphy-remembering-auschwitz- and-the-enormity-of-evil/>

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