Photography and Remembrance

In honor of Anne Frank's birthday this week, Jewish Book Council Intern Nat Bernstein shares her essay "Photography and Remembrance." Nat is a graduate of Hampshire College.

I hold before me two pictures of schoolchildren taken within twenty years of each other, black and white. The first is a wide shot of a wooden schoolhouse with its doors flung open, out of which pours a posed assembly of teachers, surrounded by rows upon rows of young children—the students. The second is of a single girl smiling comfortably from behind her desk, a pen poised in her hand atop an open book. 

Courtesy of the Tarrow Family

Aside from the ages of their juvenile subjects and the scholastic setting, these two pictures do not seem to have much in common. Indeed, the differences between the images not only increase the more one examines them but deepen as soon as the similarities they share are discovered. The school uniform worn by the lone girl at her desk, for example, matches that of the girls standing outside the schoolhouse: a white collar jutting out of a dark sweater, a dark skirt—even the hairstyles of most of the clustered schoolgirls are in a similar fashion to hers. But once one focuses on this commonality between the girls, the differences become immeasurably starker. One suddenly notices the bare legs sprawled on the ground in contrast to the stockings planted firmly under the desk, the primitive structure of the wooden schoolhouse in comparison to the immaculate angles of urban modernity in the girl’s classroom.

The very format of the two depictions—group picture versus individual portrait—increases in significance and distinction upon a closer comparative reading of the images. While the picture of the classroom displays its impressive design and assets, the subject of the image is the girl centered within it. She appears as though intended to seem caught in a semi-candid moment, yet her orderly composure and the positioning of her desk in that strange corner of the room suggest that the portrait is staged. The photograph of the group outside the schoolhouse, by contrast, has the reverse effect: the organized rows of students swerve and stagger out of their intended linear grid, postures and poses vary, here and there a child looks away from the camera—the picture transforms from a staged assembly into a semi-candid group portrait. The subject of this photograph is not any of the individual students in the crowd but rather the crowd itself together with the building behind it: it is a picture of the school as a whole, of the institution. This latter picture was clearly intended as a civic document, a public image; the former to be kept in the privacy of the home.

And yet, the picture of the schoolhouse assembly is a private photograph, and the girl sitting at her desk is a public image.

This paradox is achieved through recognition of the historical and cultural contextual punctum, to use Roland Barthes’ term, in each photograph—that which disturbs the studium, the significance of the image as the photographer intended.* In the case of the picture of the schoolhouse, the sign reading “Chorev School” in Hebrew and Cyrillic lettering above the open door was originally part of the image’s studium: a public document of civic pride and achievement for the Jewish community of Kletsk, a town in modern-day Belarus, taken by a former resident visiting from his new home in America. This was a photograph intended for public record and display as a piece of the town’s history; the sign above the schoolhouse door becomes the image’s punctum when the viewer realizes that it brands every child standing beneath it with a death sentence instead of a future, that the subject of the photograph—the school, the institution, the community—will disappear from history, enduring only in memory.** And true to this realization, this portrait of “Chorev School” does not exist in any town records or historical sites; it can only be found in the Yizkor Bukh Kletsk (Kletsk Memorial Book) assembled by survivors and relatives after the Holocaust, kept privately shelved in the homes of Kletsker descendants—like my own.

The significance of the second photograph—that of the girl smiling at her desk—is more easily ascertained: instead of searching the picture for clues, the observer simply recognizes the girl’s face. What was originally a school portrait intended for her parents’ private possession has been so extensively reproduced and published—along with many other school pictures and family snapshots—alongside one of the most widely-read personal narratives ever written that the observer immediately realizes that the girl sitting with pen in hand for the camera is Anne Frank. It is not even her face so much as the pose—sitting at desk with an open book or in the middle of writing—that one recognizes. This poised image of the young teenager has become iconic—for many, the face of the Holocaust, the posterchild. Can there be any photograph more public than that?

Of course, it is not the picture on its own, but together with the accompanying narrative of Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl that has kept her face above all others from sinking into obscurity. Because, in her case, the photograph has never stood on its own, without the underlying context of her biography, perhaps the observer is somehow just as distanced from Anne Frank’s school portrait and the Chorev School picture, albeit in very different ways.

In her essay “Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy,” Marianne Hirsch claims that what allows the observer to engage with images from the Holocaust, at least in part, is a sense of identification with the subject—especially when the subject is a child: vulnerable, open to be both projected and relied upon as victim, witness, and an emblem of memory.*** Granted, neither of these pictures depict or even indicate the violence that will befall their subjects: there is no cause to fear for their safety, not yet, nor can they be relied upon as witnesses. One may look at the images and relate, “I, too, was a schoolchild once,” or “I am in school, too,” and begin to recall one’s own school memories, perhaps thinking back to the experience of having one’s school picture taken. But does one’s connection to either of these photographs extend beyond this separate recollection? Can one build a memory—projected, prosthetic, or heteropathic****—from viewing these images?

Personally, I cannot identify myself within or in relation to either image. In the case of the photograph from Kletsk, how am I to see myself in the context with this old world, with a community and culture that was long dead before I was born? And there are so many children—a handful of teachers, too: am I supposed to imagine the experience of all of them at once? My eyes scour the photograph, trying to single out a figure with whom I might connect. I notice the boy centered in the front row, bare knees drawn to his chest. Maybe he is sitting in the lap of the older boy behind him, but aside from this supposition I can guess nothing of his life or what became of him. The same with the two girls propped up against each other, stretched on the ground just ahead of the rest of the assembly. And who is that man leaning against the left-hand corner of the school building, apart from everyone else?

It is possible that I could find the answer to each of these questions, but I can hardly decide which one to start with, and it is equally possible that such information has long since vanished. I can no more connect with a single person in the crowd than with all of them at once; each figure in the photograph remains as anonymous to me as the next, and in order not to become completely overwhelmed by seeking unobtainable information regarding every student, teacher, and bystander in the picture I immediately assume apathy. I do not see myself alongside or in relation to anyone; this is simply a school picture that I refuse to relate to or remember.

In the case of the image of Anne Frank at her desk, I am frozen out by its icon status. Just as the children outside the Chorev School are too anonymous to me, Anne Frank is too familiar. I cannot create my own memories around her because I already know story intimately; I cannot see myself as Anne Frank or insert myself into her existence because I have already been assigned a role that I cannot escape from: I am “Kitty,” I am Anne Frank’s diary, for she has spoken directly to me as such and her story and address has consumed me, fascinated me to the point where I am locked in rigidly as the custodian of her memories exactly as she wrote them, without the liberty of imagining myself in any relation to Anne Frank.

But for both images, perhaps I cannot insert into the realm of the image, to see myself through, against, or alongside the children in the picture because I know what fate awaits them but cannot see it in the photograph; it looms around the picture, more horrific unseen than any visual evidence could ever be. And so I subconsciously shut myself out of the image before the whisper of horror can creep in, and I remain the apathetic viewer, the spectator, irrevocably detached from the children right before my eyes.

*Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980.
**Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, from Rossington and Whitehead, eds., Theories of Memory: A Reader.
***Marianne Hirsch, "Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy."
****Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture.

Additional reading related to the Holocaust and Photography: