Photographs, Symbolic Images, and the Holocaust: On the (im)possibility

Photography has often been scrutinized regarding its relationship to reality or historical truth. This includes not only the indexicality of photography, but also the question of how structures and processes that comprise history and historical events can be depicted. In this context, the Holocaust provides a particular challenge to photography. As has been discussed in numerous publications, this historic event marks the "limits of representation." Nevertheless there are many photographs "showing" the Holocaust that have been produced in different contexts that bespeak the photographers' gaze and the circumstances of the photographs' production. Some of the pictures have become very well known due to their frequent reproduction, even though they often do not show the annihilation itself, but situations different from that; their interpretation as Holocaust pictures results rather from a metonymic deferral. When these pictures are frequently reproduced they are transformed into symbolic images, that is, images that can be removed from their specific context, and in this way they come to signify abstract concepts such as "evil." Despite being removed from their specific context these images can, as this essay argues, refer to historical truth. First, I explore the arguments of some key theorists of photography (Benjamin, Kracauer, Sontag, Barthes) to investigate the relationship between photography and reality in general, looking at their different concepts of reality, history, and historical truth, as well as the question of the meaning of images. Second, I describe the individual circumstances in which some famous Holocaust pictures were taken in order to analyze, by means of three examples, the question what makes these specific pictures so particularly suitable to becoming symbolic images and why they may-despite their abstract meaning-be able to depict historical truth.