Teaching the Holocaust Using Photographs


“Photographs have the kind of authority
over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before
that.” – Walter Lippmann Photographs are often perceived as direct
and un-manipulated expressions of reality, but we need to keep in mind that a photograph
can only capture one moment in the sequence of time, and that it is not just a reflection
of reality but also an interpretation of it. Photographers may aspire to present a scene
with authenticity, but it is they who subjectively choose the timeframe and space of a photograph.
While, by doing that they may present their own interpretation of reality, focus on a
specific subject and also cut out others. A picture can also be cropped and retouched
afterwards, in order to emphasize certain elements, while cutting out others.
Photographs can serve as documentation but we need to remember to put them into context
in order to understand them properly. If we use photographs in the classroom, we
must be aware of a number of issues that may influence the way we look at a photograph,
or what it is actually telling us. For example: who is the photographer? After all, the photographer is a human being and they may show their own interpretation of
the world. On the one hand, we have official German photographers who took pictures in order to show the Jewish victims in a negative light for their Anti-Semitic propaganda, and we also have Jewish photographers who took pictures secretly in order to tell the world about the atrocities, and also to commemorate the Jewish victims. Another question we have to consider is: why was the photograph taken? German photographers
often took pictures to show their own racial supremacy, or they used the photos as trophies
in their acts of humiliating Jewish victims. What is absent from the picture? Another question
is was the photograph staged? In some pictures that we have from the Warsaw ghetto, German
official propaganda photographers created incidents that never actually happened.
And another question: Where was the photograph found? Many pictures of German photographers
were found in private collections or in photo albums, as if they were souvenirs. That’s
indicative to us that they were probably really proud of what they were doing. We mainly remember things visually, and that’s why photographs are such a great tool in teaching
about the Holocaust, but we also need to remember that photographs, like any other historical
account, have their limits, and because of that, we need to put them into context and
we need to be more critical when analyzing photographs.

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