Suspicious Images: Iconoclasm and the Prohibition of Representation

Chari LarssonFor the Conference "Reading the Suspect: Interpretation and Aesthetics" University of Queensland, Australia 2010.

By Chari Larsson

Much has been written about the easy dissemination and proliferation of images in our media culture, what Deleuze once described as ‘clichés’. However, what happens when images transgress, and violate limits? At what point does an image become too real, such that it engenders suspicion and distrust?  I will consider these questions in relation to two case studies. The first will begin with a discussion of an exhibition Mémoire des camps in Paris in 2001 which displayed four small photographs from the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ensuing uproar demonstrating how sensitive the issue of representation and the Holocaust remains in contemporary French thought. The second case study will examine the iconoclasm in the circulation of mass media images in relation to Laura Waddington’s 2004 film Border which documents the plight of asylum seekers in the Sangatte refugee camp in northern France. These case studies are juxtaposed in both time and subject matter, however they both provide a counterpoint, or a challenge to the acceptable or conventional circulation of images. In respect to the Auschwitz photos, this was a breach of the prohibition of representation of the Holocaust. For Laura Waddington, Border is a political challenge to the hegemonic control of news images.

The history of iconoclasm or the suspicion towards images is a long one in all of its Platonic, Christian and Judaic forms. Fear of the image, the anxiety and suspicion of the ‘power of images’ manifests itself a variety of ways; at its most fundamental, iconoclasm involves the total destruction of all images. Historically, this is most often referred to in respect to the early Christian and Byzantine controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries and resurfaced again during the Reformation led by Luther. However, far from being relegated to history, a recent example of religious iconoclasm was the 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamian by the Taliban. At the other end of the spectrum, contemporary iconoclasm may be more subtle; images are simply withdrawn from their circulation by the news media, with the aim of eliminating their public visibility. A very high profile example of this was Richard Drew’s Falling Man photograph. When the image was published, it was immediately subjected to criticism, and was subsequently removed from circulation. Falling Man might well have faded away into obscurity, however it was rehabilitated by Henry Singer’s 2006 documentary 9/11: The Falling Man examining the iconoclasm and controversy surrounding its history. Nothing makes an image more powerful, than the attempt to destroy it.

One of the key ideas underlying the emerging field of visual studies has been a reassessment of our uneasy relationship with images. In pursuing a fundamental ontology of images, some commentators such as W.J.T. Mitchell have argued that a theory of images is unable to be decoupled from a history about the fear of images. One alternative to this particular narrative of the history and theory of images is the intervention of French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman. His thirty year project has interrogated the traditional concepts of art history which are subsequently problematised and reworked. The challenge the Holocaust poses to representation would appear as a necessary intervention on his journey through the blind spots of the discipline.

The visual record of the concentration camps primarily consists of the work by Allied war photographers, which began to appear in the spring of 1945. Reprinted countless times, these images have become icons in terms of evoking the horror of the Holocaust; the little boy with his hands up in the Warsaw ghetto, piles of stacked corpses, emaciated prisoners on liberation. These images constitute a ‘visual memory bank’, which we draw upon when thinking of the Holocaust.

What makes these four photographs remarkably different, however, is they were secretly shot inside the camps, despite all efforts by the Nazis to destroy all records and eye witnesses. They are testimony produced inside the event itself, falling outside the acceptable conventions or boundaries of Holocaust photography. These photographs were taken by members of the Sonderkommando whose role in the camp was to manage the machinery of the death of their fellow Jews; the gas chambers and the crematoria in what Primo Levi described as “National Socialism’s most demonic crime.” The Sonderkommando were kept isolated from all other aspects of camp life and routinely eliminated by incoming squads so as to ensure absolute secrecy of the existence and mechanics of the “Final Solution.”

The first of the images are taken by an unknown Greek inmate in August 1944. The photographs were taken inside the gas chamber itself and show the work of the other members of the squad incinerating the bodies in the open pits. The photographer is concealed by the darkness of the gas chamber. In the second shot, he slightly alters his direction, which is slightly closer. It is in focus, closer. The smoke in the background comes from the incineration pits. The inmate then leaves the security of the gas chamber, and takes two snapshots, without looking. Once outside the gas chamber, he would have been visible to the SS guards on their watch towers which helps explain the furtive, out of focus quality of the following images. The next image is a picture of a group of women, already undressed, getting ready to enter the gas chamber. And finally, the last image is completely abstracted, we can just see the top of the trees. The film was returned back to the central camp, and eventually smuggled from Auschwitz in a tube of toothpaste where in September it reached the Polish Resistance. Despite operating in an impossible situation, the photographer maintained the belief that these images could provide proof of the reality of the gas chambers.

Didi-Huberman’s essay is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it marks a point of departure from the iconophobia which has stressed the unknowable, unspeakable, and ultimately unrepresentable status of the Holocaust since the 1980’s. What has emerged is a widely accepted unquestioned “unsayability” of the Holocaust. The philosophical underpinnings of this discourse begin with Adorno’s famous comment of 1949, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In the 1980’s, in his classic account of Le Differend, Lyotard considers the paradoxical impossibly of the Holocaust survivor; how can a survivor prove the existence of the gas chambers if they did not witness them with their own eyes? Auschwitz performs as a powerful example of Le Differend, as it destroyed all available tools to understand and measure it. For Lyotard, it is that which lies outside the limits of language, representation and ultimately knowledge. In a direct assault on this tradition of framing the Holocaust beyond representation, Didi-Huberman argues, “To speak of Auschwitz in terms of the unsayable, is not to bring oneself closer to Auschwitz.”

Secondly Didi-Huberman stressed the importance of the context of the image’s production. He stresses the phenomenological role of the photographer, carefully reconstructing the process and conditions under which the photographs were taken. In emphasising our responsibility to bear witness to the photographs, to pay the respect to the photographer who risked his life to take the images, Didi-Huberman signals a shift from earlier psychopathologies of desire which have characterised models of spectatorship. Didi-Huberman emphasises our responsibility not to avert our gaze, shifting the terms of viewing from that of voyeurism and fetishism to opening up the possibility for a discussion of ethical spectatorship. At the core of Didi-Huberman’s essay is a plea for the moral and ethical responsibility to bear witness. To neglect these images is to fulfil the prophesy of the SS as recounted by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi: “However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world would not believe him.” These photographs are not simply documents, but a testament to the humanity of the victims that the Nazi’s sought to obliterate. Didi-Huberman writes, “It is a response we must offer, as a debt to the words and images that certain prisoners snatched, for us, from the harrowing Real of their experience.” By continuing to adhere to the tradition of framing the Holocaust in terms of its sublime, unknowable nature, we are eschewing our ethical responsibility to try and understand. It is an ethical position which I wish to extract and to explore its possible implications in discussing Laura Waddington’s video Border

Laura Waddington is a Brussels based film maker with a particular interest in the movement of displaced peoples. In a subtle interrogation of our indifference to the existence of asylum seekers and their suffering, Border is a record of the six months she spent hidden in the fields with the predominantly Afghan and Iraqi refugee in the areas surrounding the French Red Cross camp at Sangatte in 2002. Sangatte is a small town in northern France, just south of Calais and only one and a half hours drive from Paris. The men are trying to jump on the goods trains, trying to reach England and many are killed or violently injured in this desperate bid to reach England and it’s (then) comparatively humane asylum seeking policies.

Waddington was shooting alone with a small video camera, at night time, with very low light conditions. The images are grainy and it is difficult in deciphering what it is we are looking at; it is almost as if our own eyes must get used to the subdued light. Waddington’s commentary has been deliberately pared down, her voice over minimal with extended periods of silence. Paradoxically, as spectators we are acutely aware of the danger of the filmmaker’s own presence; the jerky camerawork, chaotic framing and blurred focus. The gaze is not the objective gaze of the classical documentary, but Waddington is an actor, participating in the drama unfolding before her. The music, whilst minimal, adds to a growing sense of disquiet, a looming sense of apprehension concerning the fate of these refugees.

Waddington works hard to explore the space between the highly mediatised and politicised images of asylum seekers and the actual reality of their existence. She reminds us that these asylum seekers were often travelling alone, having been separated from their families. Border highlights the paradoxical function of the news image; it shows us everything, but nothing at all.

Waddington’s images exist outside the hegemonic control of the news media. When we examine press photographs of asylum seekers in the Australian press, the images are highly militarised, with Navy boats patrolling in the background. The shots are often taken by long distance, and by air. Referred to in Australia as ‘Boat People’, by the politicians and the news media, the images reinforce this messaging, conveying the notion that we are ‘at war’ with asylum seekers. For every boat that is turned back, our government is vindicated for successfully patrolling our borders. For every boat that ‘makes it’, it becomes evidence of policy failure. Neglected in this narrative are the risks undertaken, the families left behind, the vulnerability of the worlds most vulnerable.

What are the implications for a film such as Border? I would like to draw on Didi-Huberman’s “in order to know, we must imagine for ourselves”, placing the moral and ethical responsibility to look, fairly on the shoulders of the spectator: it is spectatorship outside of the politicised hierarchies of the media. Border is a potent reminder of what lies beyond the boundaries of the mainstream news press, a highly efficient mechanism for showing us either nothing, or showing us only clichés.
Chari Larsson, “Suspicious Images: Iconoclasm and the Prohibition of Representation” for the Conference, “Reading the Suspect: Interpretations and Aesthetics”, University of Queensland, Australia, July 2010.