vollmann on the ethics of photography


Images in Spite of All discusses four clandestine photographs taken at Auschwitz by a member of the Sonderkommando, the “special detachment” whose members, also prisoners, facilitated the entry of their fellow human beings into the gas chambers, then removed the gold teeth, cut off the women’s hair (it would be woven into cloth), cremated the remains, and, in a few weeks, entered the gas chambers themselves, to be similarly “processed” by their successors. The photographer’s name was Alex. No one knows his last name. He perished soon after, of course. It is miraculous that these negatives survived. Smuggled out in a tube of toothpaste, they constitute, so we are told, the only known photographs of mass killing in the gas chambers. Hence Didi-Huberman’s characterization of them as “images in spite of all,” brave affirmations on the part of the doomed, sad scraps to be treasured, instructions to be followed insofar as we can: We, the victims, show you our fate. Look at us, remember us, save us! This “insofar as we can” now corresponds to “in spite of all,” for the few who were saved and the many who were murdered have long since passed beyond imminence and urgency. Looking and remembering remain valid tasks; these invite us to study each of the four images in detail.

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