In a recent post about the book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, I drifted briefly into the topic of “reading” photographs, a practice I usually think leads to misreading. In conjunction with this I recommend taking a look at an important article in the February/March 2009 issue of Bookforum by writer and photographer William T. Vollmann. In reviewing three books that deal with Nazi- or Holocaust-related photographs, Vollmann poses the question:
How should we parse a documentary image that directly or indirectly portrays evil, injustice, anguish? What rights and duties, if any, does our understanding engender?
One of the most intense sections of Vollmann’s article centers on four extraordinary images from Auschwitz. “Smuggled out in a tube of toothpaste, they constitute, so we are told, the only known photographs of mass killing in the gas chambers”. As he notes, these images, made by a prisoner, can be viewed as a “brave affirmation” of the horrors inflicted by the Nazis. Still, there exists a substantial discourse on the ethical uses and legitimate interpretations of any and all Holocaust imagery. What Vollmann does well is to tackle some terribly thorny and emotion-laden ethical questions with great level-headedness, respect and clarity.
Speaking primarily about documentary or archival photographs, Vollmann ultimately concludes
No one can own a photograph, least of all the photographer, because his photograph came about as a result of three mutually independent parties—photographer, camera, and subject—and, moreover, because the photograph, manifesting reality, which cannot be owned, can affect us in ways that the photographer might never have foreseen or desired.
His article Seeing Eye to Eye can be read online although unfortunately without any of the illustrations that appear in the magazine. He also recommends two of the books under his review: Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All and Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography.