Alive and Destroyed

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Alive and Destroyed:  A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time

Since 2010, much of my artistic practice has centered on the contemporary geography of the Holocaust at its epicenter in southern Poland and western Ukraine.  The most ambitious and sprawling of a related set of works on the historical memory of genocide is my project Alive and Destroyed, represented here in 40 photographs, comprising approximately 1/5 of the whole project.  

This project has the dual goal of expanding our conception of both the facts of the genocide itself, and the complications of remembering it.  Like traditional documentary, the project presumes that understanding depends on a subject being seen in the first place.  Against the broad tendency to reduce the Holocaust to its most notorious and centrifugal sites, such as Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, this project focuses on the small and often forgotten localities where the genocide also occurred––over 42,500 of them, as documented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum––including town ghettos, slave labor camps, transit and subcamps, prisons, hiding places, forest massacre sites, and deportation routes.  

Or to put it differently, many people mark the “Night of the Broken Glass” (“Reichskristallnacht” in German) as the beginning of the physical annihilation of the European Jews by the Nazi regime and their collaborators.  The term refers to the coordinated series of Nazi pogroms across Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938.  The attacks of that night left countless streets covered with the smashed windows of stores, buildings, homes, hospitals, schools and synagogues, and resulted in the roundup of over 30,000 Jews, plus scores of beatings, burnings and murders.  While there is of course a danger in turning to metaphor to understand historical actuality, it seems to me that we might envision the subsequent catastrophe as the shattering of a massive, continent-wide pane of glass covering all of Europe, in which shards fell everywhere––from cities to towns to the smallest villages.  To remember justly means to look for and into the scattered shards not only in emblematic locations, but wherever we find them.  In this sense, my project takes a decidedly de-centered approach to the Holocaust, toward what might be called a “relocalization” of historical memory, in which a local and sometimes hyperlocal view alternately troubles and confirms the relationship of history to present places.

However, Alive and Destroyed attempts to show its contents not in the narratively stabilizing terms of conventional documentary photography, rather in an overtly experimental photographic form that mixes loss and incomprehension into witness and avowal.  The reason owes to the mercurial contemporary geography of the Holocaust itself, which mixes visible and invisible ruination, where traumatic actualities are as elusive and intangible as they are palpable and blunt.  In this regard the problem before me has been not just to photograph the literal remnants of the destruction of the European Jews, but the effects of that destruction on the living world in which it remains embedded.  

It took me a long time of experiment to find a visual language with anything like the right balance and tone.  Made with a large format camera (and without digital manipulation), each of the pictures could be called a reckoning in the form of a visual dialectic:  at once descriptive and elusive, declarative and non-conclusive.  Each picture is made equally of optical sharpness and optical blur––properties that paradoxically seem to act on each other haptically in the pictures themselves––toward a sense of the genocide in its afterlife as a cultural inheritance that is volatile, mute and still very much in the process of formation.  In this sense the pictures could fairly be described as visually thick, indeed too thick easily to resolve into stories about the sites pictured.  Rather they seem to me to reach contemplatively into the space of stories––some told, some reclaimed in fragments, most untold or incompletely tellable––and to dwell in that space.  In this sense the purpose of making pictures in response to historical trauma, of giving-image to my own struggle with this history, is precisely to interrupt the prerogatives, the conceits and the redemptive implications of telling stories.   

As an artist and a thinker, I worry that the Holocaust is becoming steadily more calcified in Western historical memory, as distinct from its more turbulent shape in contemporary Polish and Ukrainian collective memory.  In the places where it actually occurred, the genocide of the European Jews remains very much an unfinished historical phenomenon––a complex of destructive forces rippling forward in time, its “lessons” contradictory and hotly debated.  To me, approaching the Holocaust justly means resisting the urge to treat its losses as unduly stable memory-objects, and resisting the urge to approach photography as a form of “capturing” meaning.   Instead, looking into the aftermath of genocide means, in effect, the opposite: creating images of release, images that explore a fuller and more pressing incompleteness in understanding.  It means directing photography’s special capacity to render presence-mixed-with-absence toward historical experience that is, in and of itself, fugitive and unsettled.  To the extent that I can grasp what I myself have made (a problem with which every artist struggles), the result is a work of remembrance as distinguished from a work of memory.  Where memory is concerned with the accuracy of representations of the past, remembrance is concerned with the adequacy of the imagination for the past.  Where memory is concerned with the past on its own terms, remembrance is preoccupied with the past on the terms of the present that keeps coming.   

Altogether, Alive and Destroyed attempts an answer to the worry that remembrance of the Holocaust should be left to historians and not to artists, to avoid the danger of morally abhorrent aesthetic play.  That danger is real and avoiding it is critical.  My own way through is grounded in a constant awareness of non-understanding, which is to say a particular searching attitude that resists enclosing the genocide in a mystique of ineffability, and equally resists reducing the Holocaust into the discourses––social scientific, historical, and literary––by which we try to explain it.  My approach also begins from the counter-recognition that historical awareness demands careful historical research, sharp analysis and communicative forms that do not pit ambiguity against fact, but instead dilate declarative knowledge, and appropriately de-conclude factual understanding.   

Against the Holocaust’s calcification in memory, its events seem to me to need pathways toward unsentimental mourning. I see engaging the problems of traumatic remembrance in the very localities where they occurred––diasporic localities, whose very dispersion and dispersedness are names for the contingent and the conditional in Jewish memory––as one mode of illuminating the silenced or amplified burdens of Holocaust memory.

Jason Francisco
Atlanta, February 2017