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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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Multiple questions remain. The subject is contentious and requires further research. Photographic image is a compromise, because it is only capable of showing material objects, i.e. traces of events, and not reasons for these events or processes by which these traces had come to be where the photographer found them. Photographic image is partial and one-sided, and so is its reading; especially if, as is the case here, the researcher is part of what is interpreted. In the conflict-prone area of Polish-Jewish relations, where memory is charged with so many questions, each scene finds a counter-scene, each assessment – a counter-assessment, depending on visual, intellectual, emotional and moral codes used and the reader’s position in relation to the material at hand. That is why despite my efforts to the contrary this analysis remains fragmentary. But none of the above devalues inquiry: the selves which regard each other through photographic image can and should be asked questions, even if who says what cannot always be determined.

It is evident that what is usually at stake here is self-definition rather than a discovery of the Other. But self-definition is inherently a re-definition: when no new information about the self is acquired what poses as “defining the self” is merely repetition. Self-modification poses a challenge, however, because changes are perceived as threatening identity; to avoid them, cultural “machines for remembering” foreground such information as helps maintain extant self-imagery unchanged. In case of imagining Poland, what Western Jews seem to try to protect...

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