Through whose eyes?

Few people today would not recognise a photograph of Hitler. Everyone has seen at least one image showing victims of Nazi racial persecution: men, women and children, and referencing the horrific events which took place throughout the Holocaust. But through whose eyes are we seeing this past?

© National Archives, Washington, Stroop Report Image No 89835b 

One of the 100 most iconic images of history according to Time Magazine. This photo shows Jews held at gunpoint by German soldiers during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in May 1943. It was taken by German propaganda photographers.

It was not just the thousands of staged images of Hitler that were the work of professional Nazi propaganda photographers. So too were many photos of Nazi ghettos and concentration camps- those photos that we see in museums and on television today. Viewed with modern eyes, photos designed to make Holocaust victims appear sub-human may today inspire pity rather than disgust. But they do little justice to the dignity of these victims; nor do they help us realise that the people persecuted and murdered by this regime had often lived perfectly ‘everyday’ lives only days before the Nazis came to power.

The new exhibition The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust, which is currently on show at the following venues and dates (link to webpage), and which was co-produced by the National Holocaust Centre and Museum and a team of academics from the University of Nottingham led by Professor Maiken Umbach, takes a fresh look at this problem. Photos, it suggests, are historical sources created with particular agendas in mind. We need to examine them critically if we are to learn any lessons from them.

To this end, the exhibition employs cutting-edge technologies. A mixed reality experience enables visitors to enter an immersive, virtual environment, and step through a Nazi photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto. Inside the space of the image, visitors can observe the photographer taking the shot, and study what was left outside the frame of the image.

The exhibition then turns our attention to photos that are rarely seen today: secret photos taken by Jewish people and members of the anti-Nazi resistance, who, at great risk to themselves, used the camera to record the story as they saw it.

© University of Nottingham

This is a screenshot from the prototype of the virtual reality created for the exhibition by the mixed reality Laboratory of the University of Nottingham. It is based on a photo from the Stroop Report 1943.

© Mendel Grossman, Henryk Ross working in the photography darkroom, 1940 - 1944, Art Gallery of Ontario

In Łódź Ghetto the Jewish photographers Mendel Grossman and Henryk Ross had access to cameras, film material and a darkroom as part as their work for the ‘Judenrat’, the Jewish Ghetto administration. This gave them the opportunity to take secret images of life in the ghetto independent from their official duties.

Although these images would in no way change their fate, nor give them power over their situation, these photographs did give victims a degree of control over the way in which their horrific experiences were witnessed by future generations.

The visual testimony and a rare example of a written note from the camps is combined with the words of survivors speaking to us today, through an interactive  recording technology known as the Forever Project

©The National Holocaust Centre and Museum

Secret Note written by Victoria Ancona-Vincent documenting each stage of her ordeal in various concentration camps between 1943 and 1945.

©The National Holocaust Centre and Museum

Mala Tribich is one of the survivors recorded for the Forever Project. Her testimony will be accessible in the exhibition.

Visitors then encounter an art work created by award-winning international artist Lina Selander. Lina has created an intimate space: an old table, some apples, a mirror. In the mirror, we observe a moving collage of photos by victims and perpetrators, as well as empty album pages, prompting us to reflect on the gaps in our understanding, and in our memory.

Finally, the exhibition invites us to contemplate lessons for today. Shocking images of victims of violence and those fleeing from it may alert us to many contemporary global injustices.

But how much do they tell us about the perspective of the victims? Do they allow us to see real people, or do they obscure the very situations they claim to document? Visitors are invited to make their own decisions, and record their responses to such photos on an interactive screen.

Venues and dates

Imperial War Museum North
Dates: 13th January 2020 – 29th March 2020
Open to: general public

Dates: 9th January 2020 – 29th March 2020 - Please note that the museum is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Open to: general public

South Hampstead Synagogue
Dates: 27th January 2020 – 30th January 2020 
Open to: Local schools

Dates: 8th April 2020 – 28th June 2020
Open to: general public

Dates: January – February 2021
Open to: general public