Translating Nazi Camp Realities into Photographs

“Then for the first time we notice that our language lacks the words to express this offence, the demolition of man,” wrote Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwtiz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (1959), his autobiographical account of Auschwitz.1 However, try as he might to relay his story, Levi is faced with a problem that many other witnesses of the camps face: the impossibility of translating the reality of the Nazi camps to those who were not there. For many like Levi, words are never enough to capture the scope and depth of the horror that was the concentration camps; they fear that even if all the facts are relayed, the reality of the camps still wouldn’t be understood. In this paper, I further explore the dilemma of representation, focusing on the limitations of visual language as a medium of communication. Do photographs allow the viewer to bear witness to the horror of the camps, or do they further mystify their realities? How do the uses and abuses of the photographs affect the public’s perception of the camps, both during the liberation period and decades after? Is it truly, as Levi suggests, impossible to relay the experience of the camps to those who have never gone through it, even in the visual language? Placing an emphasis on the photojournalism dedicated to the camps in the 1940s, I will consider how and to what extent photography translates the horror of the Nazi concentration camps to the distanced viewer.

In Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye (1998), Barbie Zelizer gives us context of how photographs were used in covering atrocity prior to the liberation of the camps. By the beginning of World War II, photographs were primarily used in news stories in general for their referential quality, corroborating the journalist’s authority in relaying the reality of an event. However, photographs were secondary to words as “images would continue to need journalists’ intervention to make sense.”2 With regard to atrocity stories, because coverage of World War I abounded in fake horror stories and photographs, the public learned to be skeptical of those that surrounded the Nazis. News publishers themselves were hesitant to print photos that were too gruesome, skeptical of their authenticity and afraid of accusations regarding propaganda or fake news. In addition to disbelief, photographs of the camps were usually inaccessible, insufficient, or inaccurate. Most of the photographs taken before the liberation were shot by the Nazis themselves (as propaganda) or by non-official individuals, such as independent journalists and underground groups. Most photographs from the latter group were not released to the public, and the images taken by the former were usually staged and, according to Zelizer, “were sporadic and partial representations of what was happening in the camps.”3 Other smuggled images were either of poor quality or lacked accurate contextual information. All in all, before the liberation, U.S. and British press were unable to adequately visualize the events in the camps; the photos only revealed that the Nazi atrocities were taking place but did not reveal any concrete details.

Circumstances changed, however, with the liberation of the camps by the Allies in 1944 and 1945. A small group of journalists and photographers were able to enter the camps, and, for the first time, witness the extent and scope of their horror. Covering the story only through the written word, however, proved insufficient. Like Levi, journalists faced the problem of language not being able to translate the entire experience and atrocity of the camps, tried as they might to be as detailed and factual as possible. Zelizer cites several reporters who spoke on this topic: “As one editor told it, the media were experiencing a case of language failure: ‘In the presence of these German horror camps, language breaks down.’”4 In addition to this inability to describe the experience in words, earlier reports of the camps failed to garner the attention of the public. In part because of the public’s caution that the stories might just be propaganda, but also because most of the pieces “read like the distanced recounting of an eyewitness telling the story of one isolated incident, rather than a reporter recounting an event representative of the Nazi reign of terror.”5

With words being insufficient to capture the story of the camps, photos were valued more than ever. Seeing is believing, as the saying goes, and to read about the camps is a different experience entirely than to see them captured in a photograph. A photograph can relay, in an instant, the pure horror of the camps, indescribable in words—the half-gone gaze in the eyes of the victims, the immensity of the pile of dead bodies, and how it actually looks to be bone-thin. The sheer horror captured in the images attested to, if not surpassed, the horror of the stories they accompanied. In her book-length essay on war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag writes, “The photographs are a means of making ‘real’ (or more ‘real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.”6 As an objective tool that seems to simply capture the scene as it is, photography is commonly associated with authenticity. The realism that photography relays instantaneously is an element that words lack, and is incredibly powerful in depicting atrocity in a way that the viewer cannot deny. “Look, the photographs say, this is what it’s like. This is what war does.”7 Photography’s referential quality also means that photographs serve as evidence for the written word, and photography is therefore incredibly useful to journalists for the news coverage of the camps’ liberation.

However, more than capturing a scene simply as it is, the photograph also has a symbolic property to it. Zelizer states,

While photography ascended in journalistic importance primarily because ‘seeing is believing,’ the image also derived power from the interpretive and symbolic dimensions surrounding that act of seeing. The photo’s significance here evolved from the ability not only to depict a real-life event but to position that depiction within a broader interpretive framework.8

Zelizer emphasizes photography’s ability to attest to the broader meaning of the pictured subject rather than the specific instance of reality captured. For example, a photograph of Nazi camp prisoners in blue striped uniforms standing behind a wire fence would symbolize the story of all Nazi concentration camps and their prisoners, rather than just the prisoners shown in the photograph. In a passage regarding the power of photography in covering wars, Sontag wrote, “for a war to break out of its immediate constituency and become a subject of international attention, it must be regarded as something of an exception, as wars go, and represent more than the clashing interests of the belligerents themselves.”9 Because the photograph represents more than the particular scene it depicts, a single Nazi camp story can no longer read as an isolated event, but rather as a universal symbol of the broader story of Nazi cruelty. Photography’s advantage over the written word, then, stems from the photograph’s dual nature of presenting an objective depiction of reality while also symbolizing a larger overlying cause that can be more relatable to the viewer. The photograph’s “realness” makes the story more believable and more impactful, while its representational quality renders the act of bearing witness more universal.

However, one can imagine the photograph’s objective yet symbolic quality might prove problematic in many cases. It seems then that though the photograph can be used to corroborate truth, “its meaning—and the viewer’s response—depends on how the picture is identified or misidentified, that is, on words.”10 For example, though a photographer may have taken a gruesome photo of the victims of war with the intention of discouraging the war, the photo could be used as a promotion for the war effort against the enemy, eliciting from the viewer a desire for revenge. In other cases, because the content of a photograph is not outright defined, photographs can easily be misidentified. This was often the case in the news coverage of the camps’ liberation, during which detailed captions were discontinued and photographs were valued for their general attribution to “Nazi Horrors.” It was of little importance whether the photographs were captioned accurately. 11 Therefore, while photography has the power to convey a realistic view of specific scenes whilst communicating broader meanings, that photographs can be misidentified and manipulated by context means that photography is malleable and subject to misuse.

Here, it is appropriate to assess how camp liberation photographs worked to translate the atrocity of the camps to the distanced viewer. What kinds of practices were employed to garner the viewer’s attention? How did the nature of the photographs call the viewer to bear witness? According to Zelizer, “the photographers shared pool arrangements that facilitated the appearance of the same shots in both the United States and Britain… The record produced was massive yet uniform.” 12 We can assume then that though there were a vast amount of photographs, common practices and qualities can be observed throughout the record. Of these photos, the most common quality was their “shock-value,” an important attribute in Sontag’s estimation: “For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock.”13 This shock was achieved by the sheer gruesomeness of the subject, and, to an extent, its unbelievability (the idea that something like this could have happened at all was still difficult for the public to accept). The photographers heightened shock by paying attention to the number of people depicted in the photos. Zelizer observes, “The photos oscillated between pictures of the many and pictures of the few . . . Taken together, the images portrayed both individual agony and the far-reaching nature of mass atrocity, suggesting that the depiction of each individual instance of horror represented thousands more who had the same fate.”14 In this sense, the photos served as direct proof of the atrocity but also represented that the cruelty affected millions more in the camps. It was important that the shock was a result of horror and not beauty. According to Sontag, “Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems ‘aesthetic’; that is, too much like art . . . In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document.”15 It seems then that when a photo looks “aestheticized,” even if it is authentic, it loses its credibility as referential evidence. Zelizer also acknowledges this phenomenon, comparing the treatment of two photographs, a published photograph of siblings dead from starvation, and an unpublished photograph, of their mother: “There, the woman was depicted alone and without the blanket, where she was revealed to be nude and beautiful, her long, curly hair spread across her shoulders. The fact that the latter image did not make it into the press of the time suggests that it perhaps went against the patterned nature of the photos that did appear.”16

Aside from the victims, both survivors and the dead, another common subject for the photographs are those who bore witness to the shocking imagery in person—usually, these are the journalists, the German civilians, and sometimes even the perpetrators. In these photographs, often the subject of the onlookers’ gaze is kept outside the frame, freezing instead witnesses’ reactions which were often mixed. An example is a photo of German civilian women in Buchenwald, where several women express varied emotions toward a scene that is kept outside of the frame. We can imagine that the women looking to their right must be looking at something important, something that deserves attention, for them to garner such emotional responses. Zelizer comments,

This aesthetic—showing witnesses without evidence of the atrocities—forced attention on the act of bearing witness. It froze the act of bearing witness in time and space, inviting readers to attend to what was being witnessed even if it was not shown. By extension, this implied a recognition of the other atrocity photos to make this particular shot understandable, supporting a mutual cross-referentiality across all the shots.17

In totality, as powerful as the photos are individually, they are most effective when taken as a collective. The photos of the individual victims are most impactful when viewed in juxtaposition to the photos of mass deaths, as the anonymous pile of corpses implied that the individual torment happened by the thousands. With photos of individual victims displaying the detail and depth of the atrocity, photos of mass death show the quantitative extent of the terror.  The authority of the photos is also further established when juxtaposed with images of onlookers bearing witness to the events. It is even more interesting to observe the photos when the juxtapositions occur within the same photograph. For instance, one a photograph shows a U.S. major standing behind a pile of dead, nude bodies. The number of the dead bodies, which extend beyond the frame, and the U.S. major kneeling behind it, heighten not only the American’s role as witness, but places emphasis on the horror to which he is witness. In another example, we see Nazi doctor Fritz Klein walking through what seems like a valley of endless corpses in Belsen. “Again, the bodies spilled out of the frame, and his upright posture in their midst underscored the macabre nature of Nazi deeds.”18 Seeing the perpetrator in the midst of the victims draws a visual connection between their roles in the event; the image evokes an even stronger sense of evil than if the bodies alone were depicted, or if we had seen a portrait of Fritz Klein on his own. In both examples, whether the witness is a liberator or a perpetrator, the juxtaposition makes it impossible to contemplate the witness without contemplating the atrocity, and vice versa. Photographs here are able to document atrocity and witness to atrocity at once. More than that, however, the photograph itself is testament to both the scene it depicts and the fact of the photographer’s presence as a witness.

Assessing these techniques and the intrinsic qualities of photographs, it is easy to see that photographs add a new dimension to the news coverage of the Nazi concentration camps. They make the event more “real” for the viewer, attesting to the fact that the atrocities did actually take place, thereby corroborating the written word. However,  the photos were even more valuable for their symbolic quality, for they removed the story of the camps from isolation and attested to the larger story of Nazi atrocity. Through this portrayal of the camps, the distanced viewers can more easily bear witness to the events that occurred.

However, as powerful as the photos were, they were often misused or misidentified in the press reports. The captions assigned to the photos did little to identify the victims captured in the photo, and paid hardly any attention to the accuracy of the place and time the photo was taken. Instead, the captions were read as generalized statements such as “Nazi Horrors.” To Zelizer,

An individual photo’s status as evidence mattered less than the ability to simply document what the Nazis had done. Photography thereby provided a collective body of visual documentation that facilitated the act of bearing witness to Nazi brutality, even if photos were not given specific captions and were not presented in association with the times and places in which they had been taken.19

The details of the individual instances of Nazi violence were irrelevant in comparison to the broader story it represented. In a sense, then, it seems that the photo’s symbolic quality overpowers and thereby defeats its significance as a document.

 The news media used the camp liberation photos to convince the public that such atrocities had really taken place, and to signal the greater evil that these images represented. In taking this universal turn, the identities of the photographed victims are irrelevant. Being that the main use of the photos was mainly to convince the public that these atrocities were really taking place, the identities of the photographed victims are irrelevant. However, in considering the original issue of conveying the story of the Nazi camps, this emphasis on the broader story seems problematic in that it undermines the individual stories of the victims, ridding them of their identities as human beings. Susan Sontag writes, “Those he photographed, with their stunned faces, their emaciated torsos, the number tags pinned to the top of their shirts, remain an aggregate: anonymous victims. And even if named, unlikely to be known to ‘us.’”20 It seems that, though the photograph captures what happens to the victim—attesting to broad story of Nazi violence—there remains a barrier between the viewer and the individual story of the victim prior to the captured instance of suffering.

In conclusion, while photography is able to bring a new dimension to the translation of an experience, it comes with a unique set of complications and limitations. While it can bring home the reality of the Nazi atrocities, it is limited in its ability to relay the entire story behind the captured photograph—the victims remain anonymous to us even as we seem them through the photograph. And, while it is does have power in its ability to act as a universal symbol, it is limited in its independence in that it requires the written word to explain what is seen in the photograph. This is especially problematic when the accompanying words misidentify or misuse the photograph. Now aware of both the power and limitations of photography, perhaps it truly is, as Susan Sontag suggests, impossible to translate the experience of an event to those who have never experienced it. Both photographic and linguistic representation are uniquely critically limited in their ability to translate experience; and while we may never be able to fully understand the story, having both documents, though flawed and necessarily partial, offer a patchwork version of events for us to witness.

  1. Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 26.
  2. Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 20.
  3. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 25.
  4. Uncle Dudley (1945) quoted in Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 85.
  5. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 50.
  6. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004), 8.
  7. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 8.
  8. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 9.
  9. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 24.
  10. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 9.
  11. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 92.
  12. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 87- 88.
  13. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 59.
  14. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget 111.
  15. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 55.
  16. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 117.
  17. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget 104.
  18. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 102.
  19. Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 94.
  20. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 44.
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