Thursday, February 4, 2010

Analyzing Holocaust Images: Photographs

Even though this generation has had more images pass by their eyes than any previous one in history, it is still amazing how few of us take the time to stop and really LOOK at what we are seeing.

When discussing the Holocaust, it is particularly important to be able to critically analyze an image. Museum educators at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are careful to use the adjective “actual” in front of the word photograph when referring to specific objects in their collection. That seemed odd to me, at first, having taught photography for years. A photo is a photo, right?

But then, I heard a docent on a USHMM tour make an interesting comment in answer to a question about the large photograph of bales of human hair on exhibit near the collection of shoes from Auschwitz. She said “we own the actual bales of hair, and some day, we may have to put them on exhibit as well.” Why? There is a potential “downside” to the wonders of modern technology. If we have so many readily available devices which can simply scan and “recreate” or “doctor” an image, what is to be believed? If a photograph can now be tampered with by any of a number of software tools, how can we know when it represents absolute reality? What truths can then, by inference, be denied if they cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt? Particularly as we draw near to the time when the generation of Holocaust survivors is disappearing, and our second generation (children of survivors) is presenting testimony that is passed down to them, there is more “wiggle room” which could be used as fuel for the fires of Holocaust deniers. “How do I know that photo is real, and has not been Photo shopped or touched up?”

A simple way to analyze photos with your students is to generate a class list to refer to when looking at a photograph. Start with a photographic image (projected, from a print source, or reproduced if it is in the public domain) and 4 columns headed: 1)what I see
2)what this gives me
3)what this is made with
4) possible reasons for making this.

What I see can include “one thing to look at” or “several things to look at” as well as a list of the obvious recognizable items – house, people, fences.

What this gives me might include “memories of,” “questions about,” “answers to . . .,” “a glimpse into . . ."

Expand on a camera for what this is made with. Encourage students to add things like “risks, bravery, hands, eyes, a tripod, a concealed camera” and fold in the formal qualities or elements and principles of design such as types of lines, shapes, colors, shadows, strong implied diagonals, illusions of form.

Finally, under possible reasons for making this be sure and go beyond “because it was someone’s job.” Each time, include a final item in the column that lends itself to the “not clear” category. Open-ended choices such as “I am not sure,” and “something that is very hard to say” will show that artists and photographers are choosing to communicate with colors, shapes, and lines instead of words, reinforcing the power of the image. Weaving in and out of the columns, and guiding with simple questions, can lead to in-depth dialogue that can last several minutes per picture. Reuse and expand your columns over time as you discuss more and more photos.

USHMM Photo Archives Online

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