By Jenna Brager, 2013 AJC Fellow
This excerpt is from Jenna Brager’s article Selfie Control published by The New Inquiry in March 2014. Please click the link to read the full article.
The exhibit [“Before They Perished” at Birkenau] compiles photos found after liberation in a suitcase in the vicinity of Kanada, believed to have been brought to the camp by families traveling together from the ghetto in the area of Będzin and Sosnowiec and either forgotten amid the piles of stolen goods or stashed as a souvenir by a member of the SS.
In [one] photograph, a girl, in her late teens or early 20s, kneels in front of a white-painted metal bed and behind a small wooden table. She holds a box camera steady atop a book on the table. She is looking down at the camera, intent on the act of creating the image. Both from the positioning of the camera and a glare of light in the top left corner of the photograph, it’s clear that the picture was taken by the subject herself, in a mirror. Like Roland Barthes scrutinizing the photograph of Lewis Payne, the handsome assassin, I am “lacerated” by the knowledge that she is going to die, by the ‘“defeat of Time’” in the historical photograph. And yet I am relieved of the burden of the Nazi gaze. I look at the photographer as subject rather than the victim, interpolated differently by this looped encounter in which I yearn for our eyes to meet and am frustrated by her lowered gaze, by the historical accident of a too-slow look. The woman looks into a mirror, back at herself, but also (not) at me. The open lens of her camera is pointed at her own image and (not) at me. There is no perpetrator, there is no spectacle. This is the devastating part; our eyes (do not) meet.
I wonder, would the inevitability of the death of this unknown woman be more terrible if I knew for certain that she was a Holocaust victim? Would I be less moved by this photograph if I found it in an antique shop in ¬Bielsko-Biala, or in New York City, instead of in this exhibit of photographs of perished Jews? It is easy to create a romantic fiction for the selfie of the unknown woman at Auschwitz—separated lovers, a cherished photograph in the dismal ghetto—as easy as it is to “like” an Instagram selfie and then keep scrolling.
Is what inspired the unknown woman to turn her camera toward the mirror similar or the same as what prompts smartphone users to rotate their cameras toward themselves? What limited circulation did her ephemeral snapshot find before it became an artifact? How do we compare this to the reach of the approximately 35 million selfies on Instagram? How do we parse through this transient superabundance, to locate what “should” be archived, what images will become history? Should we even try?
Jenna Brager is a doctoral student and artist in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies and a certificate in LGBT Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research looks at processes of veridiction and the establishment of truth after atrocity through narrative testimony, photographic evidence, and transgenerational memory practice. Her writing and comics have been published in the Black Warrior Review, The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Shareable Magazine, among others.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Spring 2014 newsletter articles are found here.