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A film about photographs. Films that look at, shoot, re-enact, and work with photographic objects enter into a media constellation that has also repeatedly been a focus of study and theorising, because through the photographs a film introduces a part of itself into the picture. As long as analogue photographic frames were necessary components of cinematic moving images, at a practical level the process of film projection generated notions such as this: An aesthetic force field emanates from the cinematically presented photographs that tells of halting and otherness, of abrupt cuts through time, of an unrepeatable past momentarily infecting, even vexing, the film, a device that visualises and brings to life in the present.

From today’s perspective, many of the subsequent reflections might in fact only be of interest with respect to a history of ideas or media archaeology. A cursory look at present-day platformised visual culture suffices in order to determine that where strict boundaries and unambiguous interfaces between distinct image media were long assumed, now especially fluid transitions between different aggregated data and algorithmically varying software performances can be observed in digital media cultures (to the extent that they are even observable). Whether still or (minimally) moving, the sensors and memories that give photographic and cinematic image data their digital existence and agency are structurally identical. Where photography ends and film begins can then often only be determined situationally, operationally, and case by case, if one even believes that such distinctions continue to be productive.

Photographies as acts of resistance

Christophe Cognet’s À PAS AVEUGLES (FROM WHERE THEY STOOD) is a film about historical photographs. The focus is on the place from which they are viewed: the present. In order to translate the still photographs into a cinematographic image, which in this case is usually digitally generated, Cognet started in the archives. There he worked with selected photographs, or rather with their materiality. We see white gloves opening cartons and boxes; the photographic artefacts are very carefully moved into the frame. Here media historiography means detailing the distance separating us as viewers from the photographs, that is, the material distance between the images of varied mediums. This is about staging a difference – or rather a resistance – that opposes instant shareability, that omnipresent sharing and liking. Isn’t that already a culturally pessimistic melody? Not necessarily, but because the gesture variously repeats itself over the course of the film, it does appear to be demonstrative: This analogue material is precious and must be consulted cautiously; it is not merely content.

Nevertheless, the photographs of interest to this film are, in an emphatic sense, that which most digital images actually are: communication. This is even directly inscribed into the performative image acts. They were intended to transmit, and their signals were to be received and read as testimony. À PAS AVEUGLES documents photo-historiographical research that led Christophe Cognet to create Éclats – Prises de vue clandestines des camps nazis, definitely worthwhile reading, which was published in France in 2019. In his book, Cognet works with photographs of Nazi concentration and death camps. To be more precise it is above all about the eighty photographs that were taken not by perpetrators, but by prisoners, prior to liberation by the Allied forces. The photographs are based on life-threatening, heroic, and admirable image acts. With and through them, in their specific medium, acts of resistance were performed. They can only be appropriately viewed today by considering precisely the conditions under which they were created. Numerous photography and art historians have worked with these photographs, and there is consensus that they categorically differ from the inventory of photographs taken by the perpetrators. Much of this research was done in France; Clément Chéroux’s work, Mémoire des camps (2001), and Georges Didi-Huberman’s study, translated into English in 2012 as Images in Spite of All, come to mind. Didi-Huberman’s work led to a rather fierce discourse with Claude Lanzmann (SHOAH), the purportedly incurable, „iconoclastic” sceptic of archival images.

By uncovering the respective image act histories Cognet instead seeks to promote new, more precise and perhaps more appropriate forms of perception and reception.

Christophe Cognet avoids any polemical energy as he takes up the most closely analysed photographic material in this debate – the four famous photographs by Alberto Errera, a Greek-Jewish member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was forced to dispose of the bodies from the gas chambers. In Éclats and À PAS AVEUGLES, Cognet is especially cautious about excessive metatheoretical appropriation and overly theoretical gestures regarding these photos, as well as the other seventy-six photographs. By uncovering the respective image act histories he instead seeks to promote new, more precise and perhaps more appropriate forms of perception and reception. Cognet is concerned less with reconstructing or updating the history of the camp photography discourse than he is with offering a meticulous and, for the most part, careful historically contextualised view of the relatively unknown objects in this small corpus.

Having been forced to work in the camp’s photo department, which was used for pressing identification purposes, Georges Angéli was able, in June 1944, to create a series of eleven small-format photographs of rather unremarkable everyday scenes, seemingly focussed in particular on topographical features in the Buchenwald concentration camp. They depict prisoners in civilian clothes sitting in front of a horse stable barrack, washing in front of the ‘cinema barrack’, or walking along the camp streets. The Goethe Oak dominates the centre of one picture, with the camp brothel visible in the background. Another clandestine photo series taken by a member of the Polish resistance, Joanna Szydlowska, documents the horrendous injuries of the „Króliki” (‘rabbits’, as they referred to themselves, drawing on the Polish and German term for test subjects, i.e., guinea pigs) in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. These were women abused by Nazi doctors for pseudoscientific experiments, such as being forcibly infected with tetanus bacilli. In one of Szydlowska’s photographs, one of the victims, Maria Kusmierczuk, shows her vivisected leg. She is standing behind a barrack, facing the camera in conspiratorial solidarity and trusting that her injury would be captured by the technical eye, with its documentary testimonial potential to pass judgment in a post-Nazi future.

Memory cultural imbalance?

À PAS AVEUGLES travels to the photo archives of the memorial sites, speaks with well-informed experts, listens to detailed histories of how the photos came to be and how they survived, and acknowledges the analogue materiality of the exhibits as well as the actual spatial surroundings of the archives. It is widely accepted, not only in historical photography research, that in order to make these images intelligible it is necessary not simply to analyse and interpret the isolated end products that are the pictures themselves, but to reconstruct the image acts, the historical moments and circumstances of photographic registration. From this insight, Cognet derives cinematically staged re-enactments of precisely these image-creation acts in the present. To do so he moves around the corresponding memorial sites with copies of the historical photographs printed on glass plates, attempting to situate where the photographers stood, and the precise location where each photograph was taken.

In some scenes, the here and now of the memorial sites, consolidated into museums and sometimes turned into tourist attractions, shines through the glass plates held in front of the camera, so that we can see the present, figuratively filtered, on a film of the historical photograph or vice versa. The present-day perspective thus enters the historical image, which, when serialised and staged in this way, can be understood in turn also as a metatheoretical gesture. This present also includes – think: “ubiquitous photography” – the now-familiar phenomenon that some memorial sites have long since been thoroughly photographed, and memorial site photographs, of course including the inevitable selfie in front of the sinister Arbeit macht frei (“Work sets you free”) on the concentration camp gate, circulate as popular content on social media, as can be seen in Sergei Losnitza’s AUSTERLITZ (2016), which examined this photographic practice. Whether present-day image acts depict a memory cultural imbalance and are inappropriate or fundamentally rejectable is certainly a totally different question, but also one that also concerns the mediality and historicity of image acts and their locations.


Simon Rothöhler teaches Media Studies at the Ruhr University Bochum and is the co-publisher of the magazine cargo Film | Medien | Kultur

Translation: Allison Brown

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