Seeing Auschwitz photography exhibition opens in London | Photography

These are images of horror: the gates of the most infamous of Nazi death camps; crowds of people clutching in fear their children or their meager possessions; the smoking chimneys of the crematoriums where their bodies were burned.

These photographs that shaped the perception of Auschwitz were taken by the perpetrators of the Holocaust. These are the records of a work in progress: the murder of over a million people.

A new exhibition, Seeing Auschwitz, which opens Thursday in London, confronts this head-on. “These photographs are not at all from neutral sources: we are looking at a piece of reality but seen from the Nazi point of view,” said Paul Salmons, its senior curator.

“It is necessary to stop and analyze them to really see what each image really reveals, not only about the place and the time, but also about their authors, the people represented, and even about ourselves as spectators.”

The photographs come from an album discovered by a Holocaust survivor in the aftermath of World War II. The Auschwitz album contained 193 images documenting the arrival of people at the death camp and the selection of those to be sent to the gas chambers.

The photos were taken over a three-month period in 1944, when around 400,000 people, almost all of them Jewish, were killed at Auschwitz. A total of 1.1 million people were murdered there. The album is a “remarkable historical source that has dominated our understanding of the place. But it’s also very problematic,” Salmons said.

The photographers, most likely SS men Ernst Hofmann and Bernhard Walter, were open about their role, sometimes standing in an elevated position like the roof of a train, for better composition and perspective.

“There’s nothing clandestine about these images,” Salmons said. “What we see in these images is the look of the killer. When we see people arriving or being screened, what we see is what they want us to see: an efficient process, something they are proud of.

In the exhibition, certain details have been enlarged to “rehumanize” the targets of Nazi dehumanization. A woman linked arms with a boy next to her; a child looks straight into the camera lens.

“If we take a closer look at what, for [the photographer], are faceless crowds, we can spot individuals, we can try to re-humanize them, we can observe the interactions that occur between, for example, one of the inmates and one of the newcomers,” Salmons said. “We know prisoners sometimes whispered hasty advice even though they were at great risk. Very often, our eye misses this kind of detail. So in a way, I guess this exhibition is really about looking closer.

Images from the Auschwitz Scrapbook are juxtaposed with four blurry photographs taken at enormous risk by members of the Sonderkommando (Special Squad), a group of prisoners forced by the SS to empty the gas chambers of corpses, d ‘remove their gold teeth and feed the bodies in the crematoria.

There are also drawings, of an inmate known only as MM, which were hidden in a bottle. They depict the brutality of the guards and the anguish of the family members who were separated and those who were sent to the gas chambers.

Renée Salt, 93, arrived at the camp at the age of 15, accompanied by her parents. She lost sight of her father in the crush and never saw him again. She and her mother survived Auschwitz, slave labor on the Hamburg docks, and Bergen-Belsen, another death camp in northern Germany. Her mother died 12 days after she was liberated by British soldiers.

Seeing the images from the exhibit made her “heartbroken”, she said. The pain “never goes away but it hits you every time you see these scenes”.

She didn’t talk about her experiences for 50 years, but over the past few decades she’s told her story thousands of times. If people know the truth, she said, “maybe we can prevent another Holocaust from happening.”

This article was modified on October 20, 2022 to correct certain misspellings of Paul Salmons’ surname.

Seeing Auschwitz is at 81 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LD until the end of December

Michael E. Marquez