Marianne Hirsch, Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory

This essay looks at what Hirsch terms the phenomenon of ‘postmemory’, which occurs when a trauma is revisited or experienced anew by a generation that comes after the generation who experienced the trauma first hand. She focuses on the Shoah, probably since it is the most accessible (there is a wealth of data) and it is now separated by more than one generation of postmemory and as such can be more readily used to illustrate her concept. To begin with, Hirsch points out that there is a wealth of images of the holocaust available (more than 2 million), and that they have become all too familiar. For some scholars this could result in our becoming desensitised, numbed to the images, and in our desire to feel again we will seek out ever more horrifying images – in the same way that psychotics cut themselves in a bid to ascertain their own existence, or that the images will eventually become ‘decontextualised memory cues’, bereft of the ability to activate memory of the events portrayed. For Hirsch, however, neither of these scenarios is taking place, since only a handful of the images are ever used to represent the horrors that took place, and they are repeatedly used to the extent that they have become icons or emblems of what they represent (p 7).

If these images, in their obsessive repetition, delimit our available archive of trauma, can they enable a responsible and ethical discourse in its aftermath? How can we read them? Do they act like clichés, empty signifiers that distance and protect us from the event? Or, on the contrary, does their repetition in itself retraumatize, making distant viewers into surrogate victims who, having seen the images so often, have adopted them into their own narratives and memories, and have thus become all the more vulnerable to their effects? If they cut and wound, do they enable memory, mourning, and working through? Or is their repetition an effect of melancholic replay, appropriative identification? (p 8)

This approaches some of the issues I examined in relation to compassion fatigue, but Hirsch does not maintain a fixed standpoint – right at the outset she concedes that the effects of repetition are different in different contexts, covering the range of possibilities that she suggested above. This would seem to me to be a much more sound and scholarly position than those who submit to either/or scenarios. Hirsch then outlines what she means by the term postmemory – the response of the second generation to the trauma of the first. She points out that since the second generation’s memory consists of representations rather than of the events themselves, repetition does not have the effect of desensitizing or shielding from shock, and so there is not a demand for ever more disturbing images.

On the contrary, compulsive and traumatic repetition connects the second generation to the first, producing rather than screening the effect of trauma that was lived so much more directly as compulsive repetition by survivors and contemporary witnesses. (p 8)

As such, although the reduction of the archive to a few representative images appears at first glance to be problematic, in fact this concentration works in the opposite way, allowing the postmemorial generation of artists to appropriate the repeated imagery and profit from its iconic status, providing a means for working through the traumatic past. One such example she gives is Art Spiegelman’s appropriation of Bourke-White’s famous photograph of the liberation of Buchenwald prisoners:

She says the power of postmemory lies in the fact that its connection to an event is mediated through representation rather than through recollection, and often based on silence rather than speech. In citing Geoffrey Hartman’s coining of the term ‘witness by adoption’, Hirsch comes to a critical conclusion – postmemory need not be limited to one family or generation, but can be adopted by the viewer, inscribing the traumatic experiences into one’s own life story – conferring the ability to “remember the suffering of others”. The point is that this kind of appropriation does more than merely repeat the image, it rides on the original photograph’s iconic status (as repeated image) and elevates the reading of it to a different level, or allows the viewer to engage in a different discourse, changing the currency of the signified without appearing to alter in any significant way the original image. Nevertheless, despite the appropriative nature of what she refers to as an “ethical relation to the oppressed or persecuted other”, this apparent identification with different generations (and even less proximate groups) somehow manages to preserve the gulf between the self and those objects of the gaze – “identification can resist appropriation and incorporation, resist annihilating the distance between self and other, the otherness of the other.” This is interesting, in that Hirsch seems to be saying that the trauma is somehow empathized with, but it remains a hermetic phenomenon – it cannot really be shared, and certainly not experienced outside the group or family identified. My appropriation of Shoah trauma can allow me to adopt the memory of suffering, but never to really identify with it (as non-Jewish). Postmemory has a textual nature – “images stories and documents passed down from one generation to the next.” (p 12) in this way, the work of Meiselas and Ra’ad can also be seen as postmemory explorations.

In a conversation with Errol Morris, Hany Farid claims that since vision is essential to humans in evolutionary terms it is natural that images affect us emotionally, and thus a small number of strong images can embody extreme emotional reactions to significant events quite effectively (Morris, 2008).

One interesting point that comes up in this discussion is the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ entrance gate to Auschwitz, which towards the end of the war was no longer used as a threshold since the camp had expanded greatly in 1942, and most of the prisoners were routed directly to the Birkenau gas chambers anyway. As such, the imagery relies on shared knowledge to provide ‘authenticity’. (pp 17-18)

It is a case of historical inaccuracy being employed to feed the stereotypes of the viewers; had Spiegelman used the actual exterior gates that were used post 1942, the image would have had fewer visual referents and therefore less impact – an example of postmemory dictating the signs used in the illustration.

Another image that Hirsch looks at is a rather horrific one of (apparently) a British soldier clearing corpses at Bergen-Belsen:

This image she uses to conflate the idea of camera and bulldozer as human-operated machines which “do a similar job of burial that represents forgetting“, as well as both being reminiscent of weapons (the camera of a gun, the bulldozer of a tank), “…when it comes to images of genocidal murder, the postmemorial act of looking performs this unwanted and discomforting mutual implication.” Is this true, or is it just in the eye of the beholder? For me the image of the bulldozer is brutal in its insistence that there was no other way to deal with the sheer number of human corpses (a final inhumane debasement after the humiliation, torture and execution of these wretched souls), while the driver’s apparent nonchalance (cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth) provides the photograph’s Barthesian punctum.

In the images of burial and execution, the bulldozer burying the innumerable bodies repeats the act of the gun that has shot those bodies before they are buried, or the gas that has choked them. And the camera recording this violent destruction for posterity cannot stand outside this complication. In its staggering multiplication, the triple act of shooting overwhelms all viewing relations. (p 24)

It is interesting to note that most of the images that survive from the Nazi holocaust were taken by the perpetrators themselves. I don’t think much is added to the discussion by apportioning blame to the viewer, but it is worth considering from the perspective of motivation – for whom were these pictures taken and why? “Perpetrator images, in particular, are taken by perpetrators for their own consumption.” (p 25) This comes back to the discussion on trophy images: postcards of lynchings and the Abu Ghraib photos. Perpetrators who record events for posterity generally see nothing wrong or illicit in what they are doing. This needs to be taken into consideration when viewing holocaust images taken by the Nazis “When we confront perpetrator images, we cannot look independently of the look of the perpetrator… When looking and photographing have become coextensive with mechanized mass death, and the subject looking at the camera is also the victim looking at the executioner, those of us left to look at the picture are deeply touched by that death.” p 26 (the photographs taken by the liberating forces are of a different nature – taken as a record of the horrors inflicted by man against man). In a way, this is similar to the claims that just by looking at the images of the Tuol Sleng victims, we are somehow condoning the actions of the Khmer Rouge, or at least viewing things from their perspective.

In the section entitled A Double Dying, Hirsch examines the phenomenon that both Sontag and Barthes (and I suspect Berger) have mused upon – the idea of the photographic image containing both life and death, its status as “inventory of mortality” (Sontag 1977, p70).

The indexical nature of the photo intensifies its status as harbinger of death and, at the same time, its capacity to signify life. Life is the presence of the object before the camera; death is the “having-been-there” of the object—the radical break, the finality introduced by the past tense. The “ça-a-été” of the photograph creates the retrospective scene of looking shared by those who survive. (Hirsch p21)

The anterior future Barthes referred to when he contemplated the image of a condemned man; the idea that the subject is already dead, but that he is also about to die – the photograph foretells the subject’s death, and this is the catastrophe of every photograph, regardless of whether the subject is already dead (1981, p 96). Sontag put it thus:

all the faces in the stereotyped photographs cupped behind glass and affixed to tombstones in the cemeteries of Latin countries seem to contain a portent of their death. Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people” (1977, p 70).

In his celebrated essay, Andre Bazin claimed that the “photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (1967, p 241); thus we see people and things that have already ceased to exist; revisit their lives, relive their circumstances, re-experience their pain and suffering.

Walton proposes that this phenomenon comes about because of our inherent inability to distinguish between “really seeing something through a photograph… and fictionally seeing something directly” (1984, p 254). This goes some way to explain how the fetishism of photography works – when I look at a photograph of an absent loved one, for example, I am inclined to believe they are with me, or that I ‘possess’ them through the photographic image. As Sontag wrote, photographs represent “both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence” (1977, p 16).

The act of looking at a photographic image “…does not mediate the process of individual and collective memory” but rather reanimates the past, while simultaneously underlining its “irreversible pastness and irretrievability.” Once we accept that the people photographed are at the same time going to die and already dead, the next extrapolation is to equate the camera with a gun (Sontag, Metz). But as Hirsch quite correctly demonstrates, when the viewer is confronted with the images taken by the liberating allies, the lines of sight become fractured and multiplied, and this “…complicates the assumption that a monocular perspective represented by the camera rules the field of vision“.

An image that Hirsch refers to is a frontal image taken (she assumes) from the point of view of the gun (whereas in fact in most of the pictures the executioners are shown shooting into the backs of the heads) in effect, “shot before they were shot” as Hirsch puts it. Were it not for the looting and sorting of clothes going on in the background, as well as the fact that they are in their underclothes, this image could have been taken from a family snapshot album – they appear to be posing for the camera!

Hirsch then uses Lacanian logic to explain the difference between the look and the gaze – essentially the gaze is external and turns the subject into a spectacle, whereas looking is a two-way process, it is returned by the subject being looked at:

These looks are exchanged through the screen that filters vision through the mediations of cultural conventions and codes that make the seen visible. The gaze is mediated by the screen, contested and interrupted by the look. Vision is multiple and power is shared. I believe that we can use photographs to study these complex visual relations. Interpellated by the photograph, its viewers become part of the network of looks exchanged within the image and beyond it. The viewer both participates in and observes the photograph’s inscription in the gazes and the looks that structure it. (p 24)

This is truly a postmodernist challenge – multiple vision and shared power. Hirsch looks at how some artists work in a postmemorial fashion:

Spiegelman’s use of … repeated images reminds us how much we may need and rely on canonization and repetition in our postmemorial discourse. In his text they have the function of memory itself. His graphic versions recall the photographs we have all seen, reinforcing a common canon of shared images that will extend into the next generations.

Not only this, but they are recognizable and thus taken up by those outside the immediate generation of postmemory – in other words they use iconography that can be adopted almost universally (at least by those who have been exposed to the original images – this is very western-hemisphere audience-focused). “Spiegelman reminds us that memory also depends on forgetting, that reduction and canonization, and also figuration, are indeed crucial to the work of postmemory.” Memory depends on forgetting in the sense that not every detail can be remembered, and so the most important items are retained, at the expense of that which is (subjectively) considered peripheral.

Hirsch also looks at Lorie Novak’s Night and Fog, one of a series of photographs taken of projected images in night landscapes (project is called Out of Darkness):

The images that are projected include part of Bourke-White’s iconic Buchenwald image, and a hand holding a portrait photograph (we assume that the hand is that of a holocaust survivor and the photograph is of a loved one who did not survive).

“The hand in Novak’s image introduces a viewer, someone who holds, listens, and responds. That postmemorial artist/viewer can intervene and connect the public and private images that have survived the Shoah, introducing them into a landscape in which they have an afterlife.” (p 33)

Multiple images, taken at different moments and in different contexts (Bakhtinian heteroglossia) and then brought together in a single artwork can help to dismantle the concept of camera as weapon, and they also introduce new discourse without simple repetition, by showing what is familiar but in a somehow novel way. It is this that helps us move beyond their shock value, as well as incorporating them into contemporary discourse without denying the original documents or replacing them in any way.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Hirsch’s hypothesis that under extreme conditions, “memory can be transmitted to those who were not actually there to live an event” (2008, p 106), I suspect this is more akin to the construction of our earliest memories from what we are told by people who create the narratives, much in the vein of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.


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