catastrophe pictures



Considerations from the book by Georges Didi-Huberman

Georges Didi-Huberman published in 2001, in the catalog of the exhibition “Memories of the camps: photographs of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps (1933-1999)”, the essay “Images despite everything”. This Paris-based show gave rise to virulent criticism, including that of Claude Lanzmann (2012), director of the documentary Shoah, from 1985, in which he condemned both the exhibition of archival footage of the Holocaust and this essay by Didi-Huberman.

His criticisms, as well as those of the psychoanalysts Gérard Wajcman and Elisabeth Pagnoux, published in the following months in Les Temps Moderns (edited, at the time, by Lanzmann), motivated Didi-Huberman to write a second essay entitled “Despite the whole image”, which, added to the first, were published in book form, in France, in 2004. Ten years later, the author returned , once again, to the controversy generated by the exhibition “Memories of the camps”, in an account of his visit to the “State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau”, in Poland, interspersed with photographs of his authorship. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017).

Em Pictures after all, Didi-Huberman (2020) carefully investigates four surviving photographs of Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematorium V, taken in August 1944, whose authorship was attributed to the Greek Jew of Thessaloniki, Alberto Errera (previously identified as “Alex”) a member of Sonderkommando, as the Jewish prisoner in charge of transporting the prisoners to the gas chambers – being themselves condemned to death – and depositing their corpses in the incineration pits located around the crematorium was called.

Today, it is considered that Alberto Errera, who was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, was also the creator of an uprising, in October of the same year, with the aim of dynamiting Crematorium V, to promote the escape of prisoners. , who ended up being massacred, resulting in his death. Photos of him (the negatives) that were trafficked out of the camp inside toothpaste tubes, – and which constitute the only visual testimonies left by the prisoners of the existence of the gas chambers – were published, together with the “Manuscripts of the Sonderkommando”, in “Voices under the ashes”, in 2001, in France.[I]

There are several conjectures about the way in which the clandestine photographer Errera would have managed to “pull out”, in the middle of the work on Crematorium V, some images that would have the purpose of making public the accelerated process of extermination in progress, the so-called “Final Solution”. Based on the testimony of a Sonderkommando survivor would have been a civilian worker from Auschwitz-Birkenau who would have managed to sneak, “in the double bottom of a soup container”, a camera, “probably with a remnant of virgin film” intended for members of the Sonderkommando. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2020, p. 23).

Because it would be necessary, in the interpretation of Didi-Huberman, (2020, p. 16; 22) “to extract an image from that, although of this”, giving “a form to this unimaginable”, “whatever the cost”, even if it was the photographer's own life. According to these conjectures based on testimonies, this operation, which would not have exceeded twenty minutes, and which resulted in four photos, would not have involved just Errera, but his companions from the Sonderkommando who, positioned on the roof of Crematorium V, would have “watched”, during this risky operation, the SS from the guardhouse located next to the barbed wire.

It is not known for sure what Errera's path was, or the sequence in which he took the four photos. For some authors, with the camera hidden in the clothes itself or in some container – which is plausible due to the dark margin present in the four photographs, indicating the existence of a shield to the light – the photographer would have fired the camera two or three times, while he walked towards the incineration pit and only then, when he got close to it, did he turn around to look at the facade of the crematorium (where the gas chambers are located) – the instant in which he would have taken his last photo. According to other authors, however, the route would have been the opposite, that is, the photographer would have positioned himself at the beginning next to the incineration pits, therefore in the open air, and, aiming at the facade of the crematorium, would have fired the camera for the first time , to then walk towards the entrance to the crematorium, from where, being hidden by the shadow of its interior, he secretly shot the other three photos.

Whatever Errera's path may have been, between his hand that guided and fired the hidden camera and his gaze, at the same time determined and fearful that scrutinized the surroundings, there must have been more than motor coordination, a relationship of reciprocal determination. His body in action, among the other prisoners, and the terror imposed by the guards configured an extreme state of emotional tension, situated on the threshold of brokenness, which these photos demonstrate, if not better than the others available about the camp, in a very diverse. Photos of him do not show the expression on his face, but they are the semblance of the community plot in which he was involved, living in vital danger.

In the account of his visit to the “State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau”, in 2011, as we said, Didi-Huberman points out that the museum’s curators exposed three of the four photos next to the ruins of Crematorium V, in the “shape of a tombstone”. clandestine samples captured by Errera, with explanatory notes on the conditions under which they would have been produced. But what is there to see, after all, in these photos deposited on the tombstones of the “Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau”? From the point of view of representation, it is possible to recognize in two of them, albeit from a distance, piled up bodies, and behind these bodies, a dense spiral of gray smoke resulting from their cremation, rising to a white sky; and, in addition, it is possible to identify by the caps, the members of the Sonderkommando dragging the corpses from the piles to the fires. In a third photo it is also possible to distinguish, with some effort, in the lower right corner, naked prisoners, very small, compared to the very tall birch trees and the immense white sky that take up two thirds of the frame, being led to the gas chamber.

Alberto Errera, negative no. 283 of the “State Museum of Auschwitz Birkenau”
Alberto Errera, negative no. 277 of the “State Museum of Auschwitz Birkenau”
Alberto Errera, negative no. 278 of the “State Museum of Auschwitz Birkenau
Alberto Errera, negative no. 282 of the “State Museum of Auschwitz Birkenau

And the fourth photo (negative no. 283 of the “Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum”)? In all of his essays on the images of the “Shoah”, Didi-Huberman examines the reasons why this photo was always elided, not even integrating the tombstones of the “Memorial do Museu”. This absence would result, according to the author, from the broader fact that “in a world full, almost suffocated of imaginary merchandise”, “we have lost the ability to look at images” as, in fact, “they deserve to be seen”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2020, p.11). This impossibility of doing justice to images by granting them the look they deserve would be the result, in other words, of the hegemony of clichés in the mass media world and the digital network.

In the photographic account of his visit to the “Memorial do Museu”, Didi-Huberman (2017, p. 22) finds that this stereotyping of images, one of the symptoms of the commodification of the imaginary, is visible even in the “museification of a historical event”. like the "Shoah". In the “State Museum of Auschwitz Birkenau”, where the “Memorial” is located, the “place of barbarism”, par excellence, became, according to the author, despite or not its managers, a “place of culture”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p. 19). It is enough to observe that entire sheds in the camp were converted into exhibition spaces: “But what about when Auschwitz must be forgotten in its own place, to constitute itself as a fictional place destined to remember Auschwitz?” (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p.25).

This museification would be clear in the framing given to the three images of Crematorium V, displayed on the tombstones of the “Memorial”, since they were “decoupage” to become more persuasive, or more readable the “reality they testify”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p.80). Thus, these images were given the orthogonality typical of conventional photographs, attenuating the concrete, exceptional conditions in which they were produced. In this attempt to make the two photos of the incineration pits visual documents certifying the real (or the referent), the skewed angle that made them possible was sacrificed in favor of a conventional verticality.

The third photo, in which the prisoners seem to be taken to the gas chamber, was also altered in search of greater figurative clarity: another correction, always in favor of clarity, was the cropping and enlargement of the women's figures, with the discarding of part of the birch grove and the wide sky that occupied the largest area in the original negative. The three photos were framed, that is, cropped, enlarged, edited in short, above all to be used as convincing testimonies in judicial evidence, thus neutralizing Errera's photographic gesture.

Didi-Huberman's (2020, p. 40) attention was repeatedly turned to the fourth photo: “But what harm would this fourth image, made invisible, then cause to the other three?”. One cannot ignore the objective conditions in which this fourth picture was “taken”, namely. Without access to the camera's viewfinder that would allow him to frame the scene, or even adjust the focus, since it was half-covered in some container (such as a bucket or a can), Errera, possibly walking, at risk of death, would have fired the camera almost blindly, unable to anticipate the image that would result from his gesture. Didi-Huberman's hypothesis is that this was a photo that was excluded from the “Museum Memorial” because its curator took it as a “test” by the photographer who was just checking the operation of the machine, while moving through the field, when he shot it. It would therefore be a blind photo, as it would have nothing to “reveal” to us, except for the high contrast between the light burst in the upper third and the shadow in the lower thirds of the frame.

This photo is, however, paradoxically, for Didi-Huberman (2017, p.50), the full testimony of what was experienced in the “Final Solution”, because it shows us that the photographer had to “hide to see”, annul himself to witness what the pedagogy of the curator of the “Memorial”, curiously, “wanted to make us forget”. From this finding arises the question, therefore, which is to know whether it is always necessary to resort to the legibility of the referent, or to the function of representation of a given photo, to legitimize a testimony. In any case, it should be noted that this fourth photo has a referential (albeit residual) function, especially when displayed alongside the other three, given that it is possible to take the shadow that dominates the frame as being the facade of Crematorium V, which it has its roof in the ascending oblique line that crosses it, and above that, to the right, the branches of birch trees that shade it; and above left, the blindingly white sky.

In any case, in this photo it is essentially the photographic gesture, and not the character of representation of the real saying that operates as a witness to the horror experienced in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After all, it is the gesture of the photographer of the Sonderkommando invested with the most intense emotional sense, which attributes to the image an indexical character that effectively operates as testimony. It would be in the absence of any montage (inside a frame), change of focus, or light control, that this photo would attest, more than any other, to the real conditions of extreme danger and courage to which they were subjected not only the photographer, but the others involved in this operation of unrestrained risk.

In this photo, the testimony manifests itself in a surprising way in the tearing of the referent. It is in what appears veiled in the image that its content of experience resides. If it is more abstract than figurative, it is because it bears witness to a “desperate act” by the photographer: it is a gesture of uprising that highlights, in the opacity of whiteness and blackness, what is the “essential of reality” in Auschwitz- Birkenau, namely: the fear of imminent death experienced not only by the women who are led to the gas chambers (in the third photo), but by the photographer and his companions from the Sonderkommando who, transforming “menial work” in hell into “resistance work”, took on the task of witnessing the Nazi extermination to the world. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p.56). These are photos that “testify to the near impossibility of witnessing [the horror] at that precise moment in history”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2020, p.256).

The criticism triggered by these essays by Didi-Hubernan (2017b), as well as his subsequent curatorship of the exhibition “Levantes” presented at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, in 2016, and, in a reduced version, in Buenos Aires and São Paulo, in 2017, in which he exhibited these four photographs in their original size of 6cm x 6cm, typical of the camera Leica, and without any framework are the result of his rejection of the “metaphysicians of the Holocaust”, that is, those who took the gas chamber as the “place par excellence of the absence of testimony”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2020, p.114). It should be remembered that Lanzmann, Wajcman and Pagnoux, among others, vehemently defended the impossibility of representing the gas chambers, either in words or in images, due to the extreme horror that took place in them.

Coated in an unfathomable mystery, they were seen as something “unspeakable”, “unfigurable”, or “unimaginable”, in such a way that any attempt to configure them would be a falsification, or a betrayal of the pain experienced there, by concession to aestheticization. . Reacting to this position, Didi-Huberman. (2020, p. 125; 222) argued, polemically, however, that considering them unimaginable would be another way of carrying out the same intent as those responsible for the extermination, since they also wanted them to remain invisible in the eyes of the international community . It is enough to remember, in this regard, the criminal destruction at the end of the Second World War, of the evidence of the crimes, including documents, photographs, and the crematoria themselves.

If this “something” is unimaginable, it is necessary precisely for this reason to “imagine it in spite of everything”, reiterates Didi-Huberman. Speculative work is inseparable, in the author, from imaginative activity, which means that to know and think it is necessary to imagine from the sensible. (2020, p. 171). It cannot be said that there is nothing to imagine in these photos by Errera because in them there is nothing to be seen (at first sight). By safeguarding these photographs from oblivion, the author does not aim to preserve an objective representation of the extremeness of pain, but to know “something at least”, a “minimum”, “whatever is possible” to know about it, what happened in the place where the pain took place. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p. 93).

If this clandestine photographer aimed his camera at the “unimaginable”, the simple fact of aiming at it would already be a way of refuting the impossibility of imagining it. It is true that one should not even expect everything from a photograph, that is, that it shows everything (“Now that’s it!”) or, in the terms of Roland Barthes (1984): “That was it!” (“Ça-a-été”), and everything that was is attributed here to that; nor should one not expect anything from her, absolutely nothing (“No, it’s not like that!”) not because that didn’t happen, as the denialists would argue, far from it, but because what happened would have happened in such a way that it would be “unimaginable”, as defended by critics of Didi-Huberman (2017, p.40). For the author, however, sometimes too much is asked of images, sometimes too little, because sometimes, it is believed that they tell the whole truth, other times, that they are documents incapable of bearing witness to reality, when in fact they are always inaccurate or incomplete, which is why they require the exercise of imagination from what they show.

The unimaginable that one has to imagine, that is, Alberto Errera's lived experience of pain manifests itself less in the iconic or referential aspect of his photos, and more in their indexical character or sensorial causality between the fear of losing one's life in the instant of danger, and the images with shadowy, angular and shaking areas, printed with silver salts on photochemical film. The value of the photos would not be thus, only in the documentation of the facts (or in the fixation of a referent), but mainly in the “emotion” indicated in their form. Reacting to the framing of the photos and the statement that there would be nothing to be seen in the fourth photo, as this would just be the rest of a lost negative or a blind “contact proof”, Didi-Huberman (2020, p. 86) highlights that they reveal the photographer's “pure gesture” of insurrection.

It would be necessary to "desecrate" what is considered unimaginable, making public not only the "technical images" of the camp's operation found after the end of World War II, but also the photos of the gas chambers produced by Errera, thus enabling everyone to imagine , from them, life in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Didi-Huberman approaches, here, Giorgio Agamben's (2007) critique of the society of control, by defending the need to restore forgotten or censored (or kept private) images to the public, to the community of citizens.

This is also the position, it is worth remembering, of the German filmmaker Harum Farocki, whose films are montages of images collected from visual archives, until then kept confidential, evidencing the power strategies of public institutions or private companies. Harum Farocki appropriates these operational films to return them to their true owners after careful editing work. It shows, in other words, that the “technical images” such as the aerial photographs of Auschwitz that were obtained from North American bombing planes in 1944, but that remained forgotten or secret until 1977, or still, images of the systems of surveillance in prisons – constitute a “common good”. Returning them to the community would mean – as Didi-Huberman (2015, p. 212) says about Farocki – that these images of horror concern us because they are part of our “common heritage”.

Harum Farocki, in other words, saves images from oblivion; he emancipates them by granting them survival. It is this process of restitution of functional images or technical use – as well as the images of “uprisings”, exposed by Didi-Huberman (2017b) – to the “free use of men”, that Giorgio Agamben (2007, p.79) calls “profanation”: “That's why it's important every time to wrest from devices – from every device – the possibility of use that they captured.

The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the next generation”. Farocki is characterized by Didi-Huberman (2015, p. 222) as an archaeologist who interrogates “the underground of the history of images” without asserting his personal style, that is, without being taken by the “apocalyptic pathos”. In his films, on the contrary, despite the montage of images, authorship is replaced by a “neutral voice”, in third person, “impersonal”, as a subject of collective enunciation, in short: “Such was the 'artistic' price to pay for the images of the dystopian world, of war and prisons, to be restored not as “commonplaces” (or clichés), “but as the commonplace””. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2015, p. 223). It is in this sense that the four photos by Errera should come to light, not least because they “make pain, and therefore history and the emotions that accompany it, our common goods”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p178). Nothing authorizes anyone, it is worth noting, to consider oneself the exclusive owner of pain, because to identify with it, despite others, would be to disqualify the other pains in the world.

These four photographs tear up the cliché resulting from the fetishization of aestheticism from the memory of the Holocaust. There are several, after all, as we know, the cinematographic productions about the concentration camps, among which, the television miniseries Holocaust, produced by the American broadcaster NBC in 1978, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky; O blockbuster Schindler's List, by Steven Spielberg, from 1983; Life is Beautiful, by the Italian Roberto Benigni, from 1997; It is Saul's son, by the Hungarian László Nemes, from 2015. This last film, however, which fictionalized the prisoners' uprising and the production of the four photos in Crematorium V, unlike the others, was praised by Didi-Huberman in a personal letter addressed to its director . In that letter, later published in the book Sortir du Noir (“Out of the Darkness”), also in 2015, the author congratulates László Nemes for having removed this episode (and the gas chambers) from the “black hole” in which they found themselves, rejecting the thesis of the impossibility of their “representation” (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2015, p.15). [ii]

In these films, as well as in the photojournalism of Sebastião Salgado or Don McCullin, among others, the scenes that horrify us, that terrify us are “beautiful images”, very well technically realized, with “splendid framing” and impeccable lighting. (GALARD, 2012, p. 111). They are “admirable images” of “disturbing realities”, “beautiful images of revolting scenes” as if, in these cases, beauty was allowed to “take advantage of suffering”. (GALARD, 2012, p. 151). These are images that “dangerously” blur the “limits of disgrace and beauty”. (GALARD, 2012, p. 18). Some authors say, such as Jean Galard (2012, p.17), that in these “images beauty combines too much with pain”.

In the images of the “Shoah” as well as in countless photo reports of human tragedies or natural catastrophes, what holds the observer's gaze above all else is not exactly the theme, nor the testimony, but the way in which these images were produced, that is , the “invasive aestheticism, which anesthetizing reality makes horror acceptable, observable”. (GALARD, 2021, p.29). They are images that release a direct emotion, without mediation: a sensitive, immediate and sentimental pleasure. This abuse of beauty that makes the viewer hostage to his fascination with the image makes him forget that there is something outside his frame, in the reverse shot, namely: the surroundings or the so-called “real”.

The aesthetic look that attaches us to the image, however terrible it may be, is only possible, in painting or cinema, because “reality”, in these cases, is constructed (or “figurative”), which means to say that it is given. , here, as absent, through a medium that ostensibly operates as mediation (or medium). (GALARD, 2012, p. 47-58). They are techniques, or mediations of language, that allow the spectator not to avoid looking away from the horror in works of “disturbing beauty”, such as The Little Crucifixion (1470) by Matihias Grunewald, The Disasters of War (1810-1815) by Francesco Goya, or Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso.

On the other hand, Alberto Errera's photos should not be attributed any “artistic intention”, nor should the observer expect an “aesthetic look” from the observer, because it would even be “aberrant, or foolish”, to assume that this would happen, when the horror is given as a gift. (GALARD, p.28). It is worth remembering that for Barthes (1984, p.15) “a photo always carries its referent”, which means to say that it is literally its “emanation”; that is, while other images are the result of the way in which their object is figured or simulated, photography nullifies itself as a medium “until it adheres to what it represents” (BARTHES, 1984, p.73). It is in this sense that photography, for Roland Barthes (1984, p. 127), not only refers to reality, but is the “mechanical mark of what happened” (“That was”!); This is why the photo of real suffering is not given the same aesthetic look that is given to the “difficult beauty” of a work of art, or the “excessive beauty” of a spectacular image. (GALARD, 2021, p. 146).

It is necessary, however, to accept Roland Barthes' statement with reservations, according to which photography fully adheres to the referent, that is, that, in it, “the message is the code”, as already warned, among others, by Vilém Flusser (1985 , p.25) by stating that there will always be a level of abstraction or formalization in the photographic image, since it is the result of a “device” (the camera program) or, in the author's very characteristic terms, of the “process black box encoder”. It can be said, however, that each of Errera's four photos is the result of a conflicting relationship between “collaboration and combat” between the photographer and the apparatus, in the terms of Vilém Flusser (1985, p.38), de in such a way that, faced with the misframing of his photographs, the observer can ask whether it was the device that appropriated the photographer's intention, diverting it to the programmed purposes, or whether it was the photographer who appropriated the device's intention by submitting it your own intention. While in cliché images, the device deviates the photographer's purposes towards their programmed purposes, among which a certain framing, in the case of Errera, his intention to photograph in the dark with the camera partially covered in the almost impossibility of looking around prevails over the device coding intent. His photographic gesture is, in other words, his game against the camera program.

It was, after all, the emergency choices adopted by the photographer in the attempt to witness the crematoriums, which resulted in the image being out of frame (a position taken). It manifests the desperate testimony that demands from the observer an “act of seeing that is equally disobedient”. (BUTLER, 2015, p.105). If these photos are “captured” by a member of the Sonderkommando are more testimonial than the others is because in them, the witness (testicle), does not present itself “as a third party (terstiles) in a lawsuit or in a dispute between two contenders”, like the photos obtained by the Soviets at the moment of liberation of the camps, but as a witness (superstees) "someone who lived through something, who went through an event to the end and can therefore bear witness to it”. (AGAMBEN, 2008, p.27). These photos (surviving testimonies) “teach us to see things from the angle of conflict”, from an agonist. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p.61). And it is through “this gaze – a questioning of this type – that we see that things begin to look at us from their buried spaces and crumbling times” (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p. 61). That is why, in front of the photos of Crematorium V on the tombstones of the “Museum Memorial”, the observer, himself, “falls over” with emotion. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 1998, p.71).

It can be said that in spectacular photos, abusive beauty takes advantage of suffering to the point of neutralizing it by exacerbating the exhibition value of the image, while in testimonial photos of the Sonderkommando the horror is shown in presentia, not because of the absence of codes because those are ineliminable, but because of the agonizing game that the photographer plays with the device. It is true that many photojournalistic images of war or natural disasters, or even political attacks, rebellions or repressions, are captured in a hurry in situations in which the photographer puts his life in danger.

In these cases, there is often no intention of producing beautiful, well-framed, carefully contrasted images, but rather imperfect, precarious, blurred or poorly lit images aimed precisely at producing a “real effect”. The fact that a photojournalist is in presentia of horror, however, does not make him part of a conflict or a victim of a tragedy, however much his photos aim to witness them, because he will always be a third party (terstiles), whether between two armies, or between the victims of a catastrophe, and not a “witness” (supersties).

Therefore, the four testimonial photos of Errera (supersties) awaken in the observer, unlike the others, a scopic drive, a wandering or nomadism of the gaze that is driven to move, incessantly, from the representation of objects (icons), trunks, the sky, the smoke, the facade of the crematorium, albeit more or less figurative, more or less veiled, to the index (to the presence of an absence), that is, to the point of each of these photos: “what in it stings me (but also mortifies me, hurts me)”: its mismatch. (BARTHES, 1984, p. 46). These photos thus produce a disruptive effect, a kind of madness of the gaze, as it circulates between the “pathic” force of the point and the informative aspect of the “studium” (or its referential dimension). (BARTHES, 1984, p. 48). Your point (o photographic gesture de Errera) is a flash in the darkness that, indicating an encounter with the “real”, highlights the experience of the photographer who was actually there, absolutely, irrefutably present, in crematorium V.

These photos that open up to the “intractable reality” are capable of disorganizing the observer's gaze, unlike the comfortably sweetened images that dilute the point No. studium, only reinforce the imagery of good taste. (BARTHES, 1984, p.175). Its “countertransference” character – not “what we see, but what looks at us”, in Didi-Huberman's expression – takes shape, in fruition, as a “return-image”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 1998, p. 79). Just as “those who are seen or believe they are being seen, look back”, seeing what is in these photos means “investing them with the power to look back” (BENJAMIN, 1989, p.140); since “this what there is”, “is there”, in it (in the photo) takes place, as a presence in front of the observer, “close to him” and even, in a certain sense, “in him”: “a floating image, postponed ”, a silent turmoil, which permeates his imagination, allowing him to imagine what is considered, by some, as unimaginable. (DUBOIS, 1994, p. 191; 325).

If in the production of these photos, when moving from Crematorium V to the incineration pits, to then return to the starting point, Errera certainly felt watched by the camp guards, and watched with apprehension by the other members of the Sonderkommando who accompanied the operation with the objective of giving him protection – as if they were all returning the look he avoided giving them – now, in the act of enjoyment, the observer who looks at the photos, receives from them the retribution of the look he invests in them.

These photos contain barbarism or horror in the immanence of their form. Not only suffering, however, finds in them its form of expression (non-framing), but also its negation. The photos when airing the pathos they activate the imagination and force thought. In them there is no opposition, presupposed by Barthes or Brecht, between emotion and detachment (alienation), enter pathos e logos, nor the belief that affect prevents “critical thinking”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p. 85). They make it possible, on the contrary, to move from the gaze, from suffering to knowing or imagining.

Its zones of indiscernibility, or indistinctness, like the black, white and gray surfaces, which move the gaze endlessly, from the icon to the index, and from this to the index, do not operate as an interdiction, but, on the contrary, it is what allows the encounter that look with horror in presentia. The opacity zone of the image is not, therefore, a blind spot that blocks the eye, as advocates of the impossibility of imagining the “Final Solution” would like it to be, but, conversely, it is precisely what allows one to see and know something else about what happened there. It is the visible mark of Errera's gesture that converted the initial passivity (as a prisoner in the camp) into an existential and political impasse ("What to do?"), which, in turn, was overcome in the photographic act that aimed to make public the ongoing Nazi extermination.

This opacity of the image is a symptom of suffering, of the (un)bearable limit of pain, but also of its potency, or rather, of the possibility that resides in it of moving from affection (or emotion) to transforming action in the world. The assumption here, contrary to a topos of the philosophical tradition, is that the power to be affected (pathos) does not necessarily mean passivity, as it can also imply “affectivity, sensitivity or sensation” as shown by Gilles Deleuze (2017, p.144), among others, given that “pain can turn into desire, the powerless into possibility, and the passion” into uprising; emphasizing that these photos are not the simple documentation of an uprising, as they themselves constitute an uprising. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p.192).

Alberto Errera's photos are poignant images. If photos of him move, it's because they show the insurrection gesture of an emotional subject. Emotion is present both in the production of the photo, in the pathos of the photographic act recorded in the punctum, as in its fruition by the observer. In both cases, the “emotion does not say I”, because “it is not of the “order of the I, but of the event” [or the intensity of the affect]: “It is very difficult to apprehend an event, but I do not believe that this apprehension involve the first person”, states Deleuze. (2016, p.194).

It is in this sense that the emotion conveyed in Errera's photos, combining uniqueness with collectivity, institutes at the very moment they are produced (in the "photographic act"), a community - composed not only of camp prisoners, but of "a be anyone” not in the sense that whoever participates in it is indifferent, but in the sense that “whoever participates in it, whoever he is, whoever he is, or whatever he may be, is not indifferent to its other participants” – as Agamben wants (1994, p.64-68).

Similarly, the enjoyment of these photos by those who look at them and are affected by them can be constituted as an emotion that articulates a collective dimension (in the direction of an uprising). Freeing themselves from subjectivist traps (“the emotion that says I”), the photos would open up emotions to other social forms or to new “partitions of the sensible”. (RANCIÈRE, 2005). They would show that “in the power of being affected [pathos] there is the possibility of an emancipatory turn”, by the reversal of despair into “desire, which is revolutionary in nature”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p. 69). As the user is mobilized by the pathos it is possible to assume that its capacity to be affected becomes, in the fruition process, a power of transformation; i.e; that Errera's “pathetic gesture” becomes “power to act” (in praxis).

On the other hand, in the society of the spectacle, in the mass media world and the digital network, emotions were overvalued because they acquired exchange value, becoming merchandise. The hypervisibility society, or the excess of very intense images from the sensory point of view, but empty from the point of view of vivid experience, both individual and historical, established a market of fungible emotions. This fetishization of emotions is visible in the “cry market” of cliché images, typical of television series, talk shows and catastrophe photojournalism that “hysterize suffering”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p. 84).

If the fruition of poignant images is marked by the simultaneous experience of the aesthetic and the political, the emotional and the collective, the consumption of tearful (or plaintive) images that immediately move the observer, provokes an easy sentimentality, a state of immobility which narcissistically reaffirms the given reality. This commotion staged by the “superindustry of the imaginary” through abusive beauty, which often triggers an effect of contagion or mimicry, is actually a symptom of the contemporary loss of tragic emotions, which are political and therefore collective. (BUCCI, 2021).

This dramatized commotion conveyed even in the images of catastrophes manifests the impossibility of living together the pathos mourning, which, after all, belongs to everyone. Among the framing modalities of shock photos and sensationalist films about the concentration camps, there are not only the stereotyped exacerbation of a gesture, the vertiginous acceleration of montage with virtuosic or pyrotechnic effects, in technology high-tech, but also in the “emphatic-decorative accentuation” of pain to make it visible. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p.95).

To celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp by the Soviets on January 27, 1945, the “Museum Memorial” authorized a selection of about thirty photos, among the thirty-eight thousand produced between 1941 and 1945 were colored by British photographer Tom Marshall and Brazilian artist Marina Amaral. The colorization process of these photos, which was carried out entirely in photoshop (in a relapse, in a digital version, of pictorialism from the end of the 2018th century) with “accurate precision and realistic tones [or, rather, hyperrealistic]”, would have the purpose, in the intention of the colorists, “to give life to the past”, “showing prisoners as real human beings”. (AMARAL apud KOKAY, 2018). Amaral's intention in coloring these photos was to "humanize" them so that, from then on, it could "tell his story". (AMARAL apud KOKAY, XNUMX).

His choices were guided by the degree of sharpness of the photos, since the ones with the highest resolution are the most favorable to digital reconstruction, and also by the assumption of the “visual impact” that each one of them would cause on the public, mainly, “on the younger generations ”. (KOKAY, 2018). Through color, “people would get closer to the reality of the past” […] “bringing to today the distant sense that the black and white of the images suggested”: “I wanted to give people the opportunity to connect with the victims in a emotional level, in a way that perhaps is impossible if we see them in black and white, representing something old, a historical event that happened many years ago”. (AMARAL apud KOKAY, 2018).

By color, moreover, would it not be intended to assuage the pain? With the argument of facilitating access to history, in the colorization of photos from the Auschwitz-Birkenau archive, the past was “hurriedly” colored to “make it more alive”, corroborates Didi-Huberman (2017, p. 100). This spectacular colorization is a symptom of the link between exorbitant beauty (and “extravagant aesthetic hedonism”) and the corporate capitalism structure of the datasphere and big-techs. (JAMESON, 2006, p. 216). These portraits reframed by pixel pictorialism that deprive them of their testimonial dimension thus end up, to a large extent, neutralized in the immense worldwide boredom of cliché images on the “Total Screen” (BAUDRILLARD, 2005).

This glamorization, which draws the viewer's attention to the virtuosity of the coloring, takes their gaze away from the referential and indexical dimensions of the image. The poignant photos of prisoners, once subjected to the digital cosmetic that deprives them of pathos, they become pseudo-historical, subdued or regressive images, easily moved. The search for more reality through colorization in order to make them more real than the real ends up producing, in an apparent paradox, the derealization of the real, that is, the erasure of meaning and history (of the referent). In the opposite direction to fleeting empathy, in which the gaze imprisons the object, source of sensory pleasure and narcissistic jouissance (“I suffer in front of these images because I am sensitive to the tragedies or injustices of life and this emotion only belongs to me”, as is usually said). thinks), it is possible to assume, as we tried to show above, that in the face of pathos conveyed in the four photos, the viewer, evading the conventions of the look, activates the imagination and forces his thinking in an attempt to understand Errera's photographic gesture, at the same time very unique, because lived in particular in history, and generic because it relates to the “human community”. (“I suffer in front of these images because I understand 'the state of emotion of others', of what is 'outside of me', “outside of me”, because this state concerns the humanity of pain in its sharing”). (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p. 196).

It is necessary to imagine, despite everything, the horror in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and not take it as unrepresentable or incomprehensible. Alberto Errera's photos are not simple representations of Crematorium V, immersed in shadow, or the incineration pits in its surroundings, but a living testimony that shows the horror lived there, as well as the affirmation of life, through his photographic gesture, as negation of this horror. The strength of resistance to barbarism stems, according to Didi-Huberman, close to Adorno here, from the willingness to “understand even the incomprehensible”. (ADORNO, 1995, p.46).

To assume the unimaginable is to give in to the spell of oblivion which, by reinforcing totalitarian tendencies, can lead to the repetition of barbarism. The “incomprehensible”, situated in a “transcendent beyond-human”, which is postulated by the “holocaust metaphysics” must be scrutinized, shown, and its multiple causes made explicit: “The danger of everything happening again is that one does not admit the contact with the issue rejecting even those who only mention it, as if, by doing so bluntly, they would become responsible, and not the real culprits”. (ADORNO, 1995, p.125). In addition to the intentional policy of erasing horror, and even erasing the erasure itself, as is often the case in totalitarian regimes, another form of its denial occurred not infrequently: partial and involuntary erasure, by reframing, or even by discarding an image considered null.

Em Pictures after all, text from which we start, Didi-Huberman (2020, p.96) dedicated himself to “look closely” at the four photographs by Alberto Errera” “aiming to outline their phenomenology” with the purpose of “situating their historical content” , to highlight its “disturbing value for thought”. To do so, it is necessary to break the frame of an image, looking for what is outside the frame, based on what is indicted in it; which is only possible through the activity of the imagination that is considered by the author, “the political and critical faculty par excellence” capable of “returning all the power to the emotions” invested in each image “from what history presents us with”, always , "before the eyes." (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2021, p.89).

It is necessary to investigate the meaning of our images, which belong to everyone. To your question: “But what can you expect from an image?”, after reading it, can be answered, in my opinion, with another question: “What does each image, after all, considered in its uniqueness, expect from us? ”. Only then will it be possible to do justice to Errera's photographic gesture. His description and interpretation of the photos on the tombstones of the “Memorial Museum” in Auschwitz-Birkenau shows that “the way one looks at and understands an image” is necessarily a “political gesture”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p.106). His work of looking at the opacity zone of the photos that at the same time effect distancing (by erasing their referential function) and pathos not only sheds light on the heroicity of Errera's gesture, at the center of the Holocaust, but also highlights the strength of desire necessary for an uprising.

Taking four photographs in the area of ​​crematorium V in Auschwitz-Birkenau at a time of “homicidal apocalypse”, in August 1944, was “maintaining a spark of hope in the midst of an atrocious reality” – just as a flash of light rips through the darkness in each of these four photos – as “life continued to sprout, fragile but persistent” in this “immense night of horror”. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2020, p. 116). Alberto Errera's gesture thus transformed the “historical reality”, made of horror and upheaval, “into a possibility of memory for the future”, resorting only to a piece of celluloid. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2017, p. 109).

*Ricardo Fabbrini He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Art after the vanguards (Ed. Unicamp).

Partially modified version of the article “Images of the Catastrophe”, published in “Journal of Modern and Contemporary Philosophy (RFMC), vol. 9, no 3.


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[I] See “Des voix sous la cendre. Manuscrits des Sonderkommando d´Auschwitz-Birkenau”. In: Revue d'histoire de la Shoah, n.171, Paris: Center de Documentation Juive Contemporaine/ Somogy éditions d´art, Janvier-Avril, 2001. Photos of the gas chambers are rare, as is known, given that the policy implemented by the managers of the concentration camps, especially from January 1945 onwards, was the destruction of the evidence of his crimes. However, we are left with the “Auschwitz Album”, whose purpose is uncertain, comprising 56 pages and 193 photographs, including images of the triage of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau, crematoriums in the middle of birch forests, and also of its gas chambers produced between May and June 1944. This absence of numerous visual documentation of the gas chambers would have been reinforced, according to Didi-Huberman (2017; 2020), by the thesis of irrepresentability of the Holocaust, according to which it would be impossible to represent or imagine the enormity of horror without mitigating or aestheticizing it by some form of “framing”, as we will see.

[ii] We have not included, in this list, reference films about the “Shoah” that would deserve detailed comments, such as: the melodrama Kapo (1960) by Gillo Pontecorvo; the film essay night and fog (1955) by Alain Resnais; and the aforementioned “testimonial documentary” Shoah (1985) by Claude Lanzmann. See the article by Ilana Feldman, “Images Despite Everything: Problems and Controversies Surrounding Representation, from 'Shoah' to 'The Son of Saul'”. ARS, São Paulo, 2016, v. 14, no. 28, pp. 135-153. About son of Saul (2015), quoted above, says the author: “Refusing the realistic banality and indecency of melodrama in the context of concentration camp extermination, the director [László Nemes] opts for a rigorous language, of a radical partiality: just like the protagonist, not we see 'the' field and we do not have access to any form of totality of what is going on. Part of this effect of restricting the visual field is provided by the square screen, in the reduced 1:37 format” which “in addition to opposing the excessive visibility of cinemascope, produces a feeling of suffocation and confinement in the viewer. Restricted format, almost square”, analogous, it is worth remembering, to the 6cm x 6cm photos, by Alberto Errera. (FELDMAN, 2016, p.150).

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