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Describing Who?

Poland in Photographs by Jewish Artists


Joanna Auron-Gorska

«Describing Who?» reveals the significance of photographs taken in contemporary Poland by professional American, French and Israeli Jewish photographers. Writing critically from the vantage point of her Polish and Jewish background, Joanna Auron-Górska argues that while visual representations of Poland and the Poles may appear atemporal, they are neither ahistorical nor apolitical. They are, instead, influenced by the culturally conditioned construct within which Poland serves to maintain the memory of the Shoah, by war trauma, and by post-war politics. The attitudes of foreign Western Jewry to non-Jewish Poles and Poland have so far received limited scholarship; this analysis is a contribution towards enlightening the conversation between Poles and Jews from outside of Poland.
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Chapter 10. Postcards from Auschwitz



Photographs from Auschwitz do not confront the changing realities of the real world. That is not their aim. Most are photographs about photographs, i.e. meta-photographs; mediated by earlier photographic, cinematic, and literary representations, such images are easily recognizable as familiar from earlier photographs. The striking narrowness of the range of theme and form does not reveal a deficit in photographic originality but, instead, the function of such imagery: these photographs serve to refer the viewer to the signs of the Auschwitz death camp already functioning in collective consciousness. The production of these visual “middlemen” is by no means limited to Jewish photographers or Westerners. Photographers as different as the Czech Josef Koudelka, the Morroccan-French Bruno Barbey, the Frenchman Raymond Depardon, the Briton Mark Power as well as a number of Polish photographers have all produced the same photograph of the Auschwitz camp entrance gate or of converging train tracks, guard towers looming over flat landscape, the campsite outdoor lamppost, the bare examination table, and showerheads in a death chamber263. The selection reflects images with which the Shoah landscape is inscribed in the visual repository of collective memory.

These meta-photographs are not meant to refer their recipients to actual sites of execution of European Jewry as these sites are functioning now. By maintaining culturally-established constructs, they help ensure the status-quo of the historical narrative already in use. Accordingly, the purpose of death camp photographs in Gusky’s Silent Places has nothing to do with representing them in Poland....

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