Alive and Destroyed

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Alive and Destroyed:  A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time

When we speak of the Holocaust today, we speak of two things:  the Holocaust as history, which belongs to the past, and the Holocaust as culture, which belongs very much to the present.  We are currently 75 years from the middle of the catastrophe (taking 1943 as a midpoint), and it has taken all of those seven decades for a decently complete historical account to emerge.  What is true about the Holocaust as history––as fact, information, data, analysis––is just as true about the Holocaust as culture, and the contest over the meanings, lessons, implications and burdens of that information is becoming more and not less urgent.

Part document and part visual poem, Alive and Destroyed:  A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time (2010-ongoing) is an experimental documentary work that grapples with the long afterlife of the Holocaust, an effort to approach loss, rupture, and mourning by looking into the zone of overlap between seeing and the impossibility of imagining.  The work wrestles with the problems of giving-image to traumatic history, not in the narratively stabilizing terms of conventional documentary photography, but in a more fluid photographic form that mixes loss and incomprehension into witness and avowal.

On one hand, the project attempts to teach about the extraordinary scale and intensity of the events that we collectively call the Holocaust.  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.  Alive and Destroyed takes a decidedly de-centered approach to the Holocaust, looking into a simultaneity of places where a great spectrum of genocidal events happened, toward what might be called a dispersive and relocalized vision of historical memory. 

The first map above shows the extent of German-occupied Europe during the Second World War, and the second shows the general footprint of the sites where I have worked between 2010-2018 for Alive and Destroyed.  This region was the Holocaust's epicenter.  Roughly the eastern half of this zone was the area of the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, and the western half was the area of the so-called Holocaust by Gas.  At the end of this text is a list of approximately 300 locations where I have worked between 2010-2018 on Alive and Destroyed.

On the other hand, the project understands photographs to function not just as information, but as sites of mourning, following my conviction that the art of mourning is essential to civilizational maturation.  On this level, Alive and Destroyed wrestles with the very capacity of images to handle remembrance of genocide in the first place.  Unlike most documentary work, which trades on the conceit that photographs allow us vicarious control, mastery and possession of what they show, the pictures in Alive and Destroyed are contrapuntal, fragile and unresolved.  My strategy 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.  

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.   

Alive and Destroyed understands the Holocaust as a cultural inheritance still very much in the process of formation, its destructiveness still rippling forward in time, its lessons still live sites of contest.  As such, it 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.   

Alive and Destroyed has not been published apart from this website, or exhibited.  The exhibition I envision, if it ever happens, is as follows:

Room 1:  “Prologue:  Shoah/Flora”
In a darkened room, a 35mm slide projector throws images approximately 10x15 feet onto an opposing wall.  The sequence is slow, with each image projected for several seconds.  There are 80 slides, enough to fill a carousel.  The images are double-exposed photographs made in a summer field in California using a 35mm camera with the lens turned backward, to create an extremely close view with very shallow depth of focus.  The double exposures draw together––force together––details of historical photographs of the genocide, and studies of desiccated plants in the San Francisco Bay Area, my own home place.  The two image types touch and do not blend, rhyme and interrupt each other, extend and complicate each other in unexpected ways.  The compound images prompt questions about the volatility of historical memory and forgetting, namely the impulse to unbury and rebury the memory of historical trauma, and the impulse to ground the narrative indeterminacies of even the most straightforward testimonial imagery.  Echoing through the sequence is the National Socialist slogan of “Blood and Soil,” and also Job’s cry:  “Earth, do not cover my blood, and let my cry have no resting place.”

Room 2:  “Alive and Destroyed:  A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time”
Some 250 photographs appear as 8x10 inch transparencies in a large room, each mounted horizontally on a light box positioned waist-high.  There is no other light in the room apart from the soft glow that the light boxes emit.  The images are organized in what at first appears a random order.  On closer examination, viewers discover a map in outline on the floor, encompassing a vast geography from Berlin in the west to Kharkov in the east, and from Riga in the north to Bucharest in the south, with the images placed to correspond to the locations where they were made in the geography of the Holocaust. 

To reiterate, the aesthetics of Alvie and Destroyed are at the core of the the work, and worth describing.  In each picture, a corridor of focus runs through a differentially blurred visual field, usually at an oblique angle through the visible space.  This focal corridor cuts through the inchoate visual field––violates it, wounds it, and through that wounding allows the possibility of naming and recognition––just as that visual field surrounds and presses in upon the focal corridor.  (Language has only a limited capacity to describe the nuances of form that are quickly discernible to the eye.)  The result is images built from alternating tensions and harmonies between specificity and ambiguity.  And this is the goal as I have set it out for myself:   to enter the preponderant truths of loss into the contact with the urgency of avowal, toward a sense of how the catastrophe at once approaches and slips away from remembrance, by means of and also in spite of (indeed, to spite) the imperative that drives the act of seeing in the first place.  The exhibition design––in which the geography of the Holocaust appears visually as points of light that are conceptually points of darkness––reinforces the interpretive complication.

Room 3:  “Epilogue:  18:18:18”
18:18:18 (2018) is a sequence of eighteen non-narrative time-based works that exist in the cracks between cinema and photography.  In the spirit of Andy Warhol’s durational cinema, each film is comprised of a single take exactly 18 minutes, 18 seconds and 18 milliseconds long.  Each was made as a practice of contemplating a Holocaust site for precisely this sustained period––the number 18 corresponding to the Hebrew word “chai,” life.  Purely observational in method, the films are noetic experiments, attempts to practice mindfulness and receptivity toward whatever occurs within a period of time symbolizing life.  In some of the films, the activity of everyday life goes on, sufficient  to itself and in an amnesiac relation to the location’s historical status, as if the continuing flow of living were simultaneously a constant draining of the past from the present.  In other films, there is no everyday life except of flora and fauna and light and wind, and nothing “happens”––which is to say the film attempts to face precisely how the post-genocidal nothing happens.  As a group, the films contemplate the mystery of aliveness and forsakenness in post-genocidal landscapes of remembering and forgetting.  They are designed for installation in a two-channel projection, floor to ceiling on opposite walls of a single large space.

Altogether, Alive and Destroyed suggests that the imperative to “never forget” the Holocaust eventually runs into the problem of the Holocaust’s own fugitive nature as cultural memory.  It further suggests that a memorial culture which treats the Holocaust as a totemic item of collective memory only calcifies that imperative, and distances itself from that which it wants to remember.  The work suggests that the task is, instead, to move the act of remembrance onto the Holocaust’s own terms––slippage, rupture––for the sake of deepening what we mean by memory.  A deeper memory is precisely memory that engages a fuller and more pressing incompleteness in understanding.  The installation suggests that photography’s special capacity to render presence-mixed-with-absence is its greatest asset in helping us grasp the mercurial aftermath of genocide in the places where it actually occurred.  If this work's experiment is successful––something that is very much an open question for me, even after years of work––it will open pathways toward unsentimental mourning.  To engage 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––is one mode of illuminating the silenced or amplified burdens of Holocaust memory.

Jason Francisco
Atlanta, December 2018


Locations where I have made photographs for Alive and Destroyed:  A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time.  Years indicate separate visits; many of these locations contain several sublocations where I worked.

Aizpute, Lithuania (2017)
Auschwitz camp complex, Poland (2010, 2014, 2015, 2018)
Baczków, Poland (2011)
Będzin, Poland (2011, 2016)
Baia Mare, Romania (2018)
Belz, Ukraine (2014, 2016, 2018)
Bełżec death camp, Poland (2011, 2014, 2015)
Bełżyce, Poland (2014)
Berdychev, Ukraine (2017)
Berezhany, Ukraine (2014, 2016)
Berlin, Germany (2010, 2018)
Beshankovichi, Belarus (2018)
Biała Podlaska, Poland (2017)
Białystok, Poland (2016, 2017)
Bibrka, Ukraine (2014, 2015, 2016)
Biecz, Poland (2011)
Bila Tservkva, Ukraine (2017)
Biłgoraj, Poland (2011, 2017)
Bilshivtsi, Ukraine (2014)
Bircza, Poland (2011)
Biskupice, Poland (2017)
Bobowa, Poland (2011, 2015)
Bobrówniki, Poland (2017)
Bochnia, Poland (2010, 2011, 2014, 2015)
Bogusze, Poland (2017)
Bolekhiv, Ukraine (2014)
Bratslav, Ukraine (2017)
Brest, Belarus (2018)
Brody,  Ukraine (2014)
Brzeszcze, Poland (2015)
Brzostek, Poland (2015)
Burshtyn, Ukraine (2014)
Buchach, Ukraine (2014)
Bucharest, Romania (2018)
Budapest, Hungary (2015, 2018)
Busk, Ukraine (2014, 2015)
Buśno, Poland (2011)
Câmpulung Moldovenesc, Romania (2018)
Chęciny, Poland (2010)
Chelm, Poland (2011, 2017)
Chełmno, Poland (2018)
Chernivtsi, Ukraine (2014)
Chernigov, Ukraine (2017)
Chervone, Ukraine (2017)
Cieszanów, Poland (2011, 2014)
Chełmno death camp, Poland (2018)
Chmielnik, Poland (2010)
Chorzów-Batory, Poland (2011)
Chortkiv, Ukraine (2014)
Chrzanów, Poland (2011)
Cluj, Romania (2018)
Częstochowa, Poland (2011, 2018)
Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Poland (2011, 2014, 2015)
Darbėnai, Lithuania (2017)
Dębica, Poland (2011, 2015, 2017)
Dolina, Ukraine (2014)
Dorohusk, Poland (2017)
Drohobych, Ukraine (2014, 2017)
Dubno, Ukraine (2017)
Dukla, Poland (2015)
Działosyzce, Poland (2010)
Eisiskes, Lithuania (2017)
Frampol, Poland (2011, 2014)
Giełczyn, Poland (2017)
Gliwice, Poland (2011)
Gniewczyna, Poland (2011, 2015, 2017)
Goraj, Poland (2011, 2014)
Gorlice, Poland (2010, 2015)
Gródek, Poland (2017)
Haisyn, Ukraine (2017)
Halycz, Ukraine (2014)
Horodło, Poland (2014)
Horokhiv, Ukraine (2017)
Horynhrad Pershyi, Ukraine (2017)
Hrubieszów, Poland (2011, 2014, 2017)
Hvizdets, Ukraine (2014)
Iași , Romania (2018)
Illinsti, Ukraine (2014)
Izbica, Poland (2010, 2011, 2014, 2017)
Izyslav, Ukraine (2017)
Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine (2014)
Janowska Street camp, Ukraine (2010, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Jašiūnai, Lithuania (2017)
Jasło, Poland (2015)
Jarosław, Poland (2011, 2014)
Jawornik Polski, Poland (2015)
Jedwabne, Poland (2017)
Jonava, Lithuania (2017)
Józefów, Poland (2011, 2017)
Kalvarija, Lithuania (2017)
Kamianka Buzka, Ukraine (2017)
Kamianki, Ukraine (2017)
Katowice, Poland (2016)
Kaunas, Lithuania (2016, 2018)
Kazimierz Dolny, Poland (2010, 2017)
Kharkov, Ukraine (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Khmielnitsky, Ukraine (2017)
Khodoriv, Ukraine (2015)
Kiev, Ukraine (2017)
Kishinev, Moldova (2017, 2018)
Knyszyn, Poland (2017)
Kodyma, Ukraine (2017)
Kołaki, Poland (2017)
Kolbuszowa, Poland (2015)
Kolomiya, Ukraine (2017)
Komarów, Poland (2014)
Korets, Ukraine (2017)
Kosice, Slovakia (2018)
Kosiv, Ukraine (2014)
Kovel, Ukraine (2017)
Kozelets, Ukraine (2017)
Kraków, Poland (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Kraśnik, Poland (2010, 2014, 2017)
Krasnobród, Poland (2014)
Krasnystaw, Poland (2010, 2014
Krępiec, Poland (2017)
Kretinga, Lithuania (2017)
Krosno, Poland (2015)
Krynki, Poland (2017)
Krzeszów, Poland (2017)
Kuty, Ukraine (2014)
Łabunie, Poland (2014, 2017)
Łańcut, Poland (2010)
Łaszczów, Poland (2011, 2014)
Łęczna, Poland (2011, 2017)
Lesko, Poland (2011, 2017)
Liepaja, Latvia (2017)
Liuboml, Ukraine (2017)
Łódź, Poland (2011, 2015, 2016)
Łomza, Poland (2017)
Łopuchowo, Poland (2017)
Lubaczów, Poland (2011, 2014)
Lubartów, Poland (2017)
Lublin, Poland (2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017)
Lubycza Królewska, Poland (2014)
Lukiv, Ukraine (2017)
Lutsk, Ukraine (2017)
Lviv, Ukraine (2010, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Majdanek concentration and death camp, Poland (2010, 2011)
Makushyno, Ukraine (2017)
Medyka, Poland (2011, 2015)
Mena, Ukraine (2017)
Michałowo, Poland (2017)
Mielec, Poland (2011, 2015)
Mikolayiv, Ukraine (2015)
Minsk, Belarus (2018)
Mir, Belarus (2018)
Modliborzyce, Poland (2014)
Moletai, Lithuania (2017)
Monowice, Poland (2011, 2015, 2018)
Moszczona Królewska, Poland (2017)
Mukachevo, Ukraine (2018)
Myślenice, Poland (2015)
Orgeyev, Moldova (2017, 2018)
Ostrów Mazowiecka, Poland (2017)
Ostrowiec, Poland (2011)
Oświęcim, Poland (2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018)
Narol, Poland (2011, 2014)
Nemyriv, Ukraine (2017)
Nowy Korczyn, Poland (2011, 2018)
Nowy Rozdil, Ukraine (2014)
Nowy Strelyshcha, Ukraine (2014, 2016)
Odessa, Ukraine (2017)
Okunin, Ukraine (2017)
Olesko, Ukraine (2014)
Oleszyce, Poland (2011)
Olszanice, Poland (2011)
Osówka, Poland (2016)
Ostroh, Ukraine (2017)
Ostrów Mazowiecki, Poland (2017)
Pacanów, Poland (2016)
Panevezys, Lithuania (2017)
Parczew, Poland (2017)
Pavoloch, Ukraine (2017)
Peremyshliyani, Ukraine (2014)
Piaksi, Poland (2017)
Pidhaitsi, Ukraine (2014, 2017)
Pidvolochysk, Ukraine (2017)
Pilzno, Poland (2011)
Pinczów, Poland (2010)
Plebanivka, Ukraine (2017)
Płaszów concentration camp, Poland (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Plungė, Lithuania (2017)
Połaniec, Poland (2016)
Poniatowa, Poland (2011, 2017)
Puławy, Poland (2017)
Pustków, Poland (2011, 2015)
Przeworsk, Poland (2011, 2014, 2015)
Przemyśl, Poland (2011, 2015)
Proszowice, Poland (2015)
Rachanie, Poland (2014)
Rădăuți, Romania (2018)
Radymno, Poland (2011)
Raziłów, Poland (2017)
Raigorod, Ukraine (2017)
Rava Ruska, Ukraine (2014, 2018)
Riga, Latvia (2017)
Rivne, Ukraine (2017)
Rizhn, Ukraine (2017)
Rohatyn, Ukraine (2014, 2015, 2016)
Rozhniativ, Ukraine (2014)
Ruda, Poland (2014)
Rumsiskes, Lithuania (2017)
Rzepiennik Strzeżewski, Poland (2011, 2015)
Rzeszów, Poland (2010, 2014)
Rymanów, Poland (2015)
Sambir, Ukraine (2014)
Sărmășel-Gară , Romania (2018)
Sanok, Poland (2015)
Sarnaki, Poland (2017)
Sasiv, Ukraine (2016)
Satu Mare, Romania (2018)
Seduva, Lithuania (2017)
Sejny, Poland (2016)
Shargorod, Ukraine (2017)
Sheparivtsi, Ukraine (2017)
Shepetivka, Ukraine (2017)
Šiauliai, Lithuania (2017)
Siedlce, Poland (2017)
Siemiatycze, Poland (2017)
Sighet, Romania (2018)
Sighisoara, Romania (2018)
Șimleu Silvaniei, Romania (2018)
Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland (2011)
Slavuta, Ukraine (2017)
Skawina, Poland (2015)
Sławków, Poland (2011)
Slonim, Belarus (2018)
Sobibór death camp, Poland (2010, 2014)
Sokal, Ukraine (2014)
Sosnitsya, Ukraine (2017)
Sosnowiec, Poland (2011, 2016)
Sniatyn, Ukraine (2014)
Starachowice, Poland (2011)
Stary Dzików, Poland (2011, 2014, 2015, 2017)
Stary Sącz, Poland (2015)
Stary Sambir, Ukraine (2014)
Stawiski, Poland (2017)
Strusiv, Ukraine (2016)
Stuttgart, Germany (2012)
Stryi, Ukraine (2014)
Suprasi, Poland (2017)
Świętochłowice, Poland (2011)
Szczebrzeszyn, Poland (2014)
Szczuczyn, Poland (2017)
Szydłów, Poland (2011)
Tarnogród, Poland (2014)
Tarnów, Poland (2010, 2011, 2014, 2015)
Ternopil, Ukraine (2014, 2017)
Tomaszów Lubelski, Poland (2011, 2014)
Trakai, Lithuania (2017)
Trawniki, Poland (2017)
Treblinka death camp, Poland (2010)
Trzebinie, Poland (2015)
Tuchyn, Ukraine (2017)
Tulchin, Ukraine (2017)
Turobin, Poland (2014)
Tykocin, Poland (2017)
Tyszowce, Poland (2014, 2017)
Uhniv, Ukraine (2014, 2018)
Ukmergė, Lithuania (2017)
Uman, Ukraine (2017)
Utena, Lithuania (2017)
Uzhgorod, Ukraine (2018)
Valkininkai, Lithuania (2017)
Varėna, Lithuania (2017)
Varnikai, Lithuania (2017)
Velyki Mezyrichi, Ukraine (2017)
Velyki Mosty, Ukraine (2014, 2018)
Vezaitine Miskas, Lithuania (2017)
Viestovenai, Lithuania (2017)
Vilnius, Lithuania (2016, 2017, 2018)
Vinnitsya, Ukraine (2017)
Vitebsk, Belarus (2018)
Vizhnitsya, Ukraine (2014)
Volochysk, Ukraine (2017)
Wadowice, Poland (2015)
Wałbrzych, Poland (2016)
Warszawa, Poland (2010, 2014, 2018)
Wąsosz, Poland (2017)
Wiekie Oczy, Poland (2011, 2015)
Wiśniowa, Poland (2015)
Włodawa, Poland (2011, 2014)
Wojsławice, Poland (2011)
Wracław, Poland (2016)
Yabluniv, Ukraine (2014)
Zakopane, Poland (2010)
Zabolotiv, Ukraine (2014)
Zagare, Lithuania (2017)
Zamość, Poland (2011, 2014, 2017)
Zaslaw, Poland (2015)
Zator, Poland (2011, 2015)
Zboriv, Ukraine (2014)
Zbylitowska Góra, Poland (2010, 2011, 2014, 2015)
Žiežmariai, Lithuania (2017, 2018)
Żołkiewka, Poland (2014)
Zhovkva, Ukraine (2014, 2016, 2018)
Zhydachiv, Ukraine (2015)
Zolochiv, Ukraine (2014)
Zwierżyniec, Poland (2014)