The Camps – Photographs of the Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps (1933–1999)
The images we have in our memories of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps are usually blurred and stereotyped: piles of skeletal bodies, an emaciated face with an unfathomable gaze, barbed wire, watchtowers… All this is wrapped up in a huge and ill-defined iconographic lexicon of infamy.
It has to be said that this is an area where great confusion reigns. Where the deceitful images of Nazi propaganda are unscrupulously juxtaposed with photographs taken when the camps were liberated, and these are in turn shown alongside contemporary images of the camps as and when they were transformed into memorials or museums. Even more problematic is the fact that these images are in most cases published without any details concerning the events shown, without any indication of date or place, and without the name or even nationality of the photographer: they are presented as “icons of horror”.
Moreover, the treatment of these images has varied considerably over the last half-century and more. In the aftermath of the war, the spontaneous reflex was to show them frequently, without prior precautions or reflection, as if they were self-explanatory. Then, in the years that followed, this pedagogy of horror was replaced by a more controlled dissemination, tempered by the concern for reconciliation with Germany. Today, it would seem that we can begin to try and take a more measured, both critical and analytic look at these images. Indeed, when we bear in mind that, for most of us, these photographs constitute our first encounter with the events of the holocaust and deportation, the need for a historical examination seems all the more pressing.
Whereas in-depth research has already been carried out for other modes of representation (painting, sculpture, cinema, literature, etc.), the relations between photography and the world of the camps has been little explored. True, there have been articles about Nazi photographs and a few books on the way photographers covered the liberation of the camps, or on the work of memory undertaken by contemporary practitioners, but there has been no attempt at synthesis, no overall, precise study of the specific aspects of this photography as well as the interactions between them. That is the aim of this exhibition, Mémoire des camps, and the accompanying book.
The exhibition was curated by Clément Chéroux and Pierre Bonhomme. Realisation in Winterthur: Urs Stahel. A cooperation with the Patrimoine photographique, Paris, the Palazzo Magnani, Reggio Emilia, and the Museu nacional d’Art Catalunya, Barcelona.