Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Should we look?

In "Warsaw, Lodz, Auschwitz", one of the chapters of her recommendable The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield remarks that "it is probable that no state and no army have ever been as intent on self-documentation as the Nazi state and the Nazi army: a well equipped propaganda team of writers, photographers, and filmmakers accompanied every German unit sent to the front. And, far from home, Nazi soldiers met likeminded folk who shared their twin interests in taking photographs and tormenting Jews."

Many of these photographs still exist. Should we look at them, or should we not?

There are critics who say we should not. In the words of Susie Linfield: "These critics, who might be called the 'rejectionists,' claim that such photographs - taken, obviously, without the victims' consent and designed to degrade - are not just documentations of cruelty but are the acting-out of cruelty. In this they are surely right. What makes their stance problematic, however, is their further insistence that to look at such photographs, as opposed to taking them, can only revictimize the victims and recreate the original crimes. In their view, we are all Nazis now - or will be if, like Lot's wife, we dare to look backwards at things we shouldn't."

Not my view at all. Firstly, I do not like (and do not need) to be told what I should look at. Secondly, I'm not in favour of censors who will decide what I can see and what not. Thirdly, no, I will not look a every picture just because I can - why anyone, for instance, would want to witness a beheading on the internet is beyond me.

Probably more compelling reasons for not giving in to the rejectionists' view are offered by Susie Linfield: "Why can we not see through these photographs and regard them as revelations, rather than fortifications, of fascist values? Why can we not view these images actively and critically rather than in mute, stupid obedience?"

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