in Frieze | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

The Vanishing

Georges Didi-Huberman’s new book examines the use of photography as evidence, and the way images of violence and trauma are understood

in Frieze | 10 SEP 04

In his gruff, braggart autobiography, Weegee by Weegee (1961), the veteran photographer recalls a period in the late 1930s when his grizzly output of murder scenes seemed in danger of sating a public grown too used to seeing the naked city daily drenched with gore. A fresh compositional tact was called for. ‘I was taking some of the best killing pictures of my career. Sometimes I even used Rembrandt side lighting, not letting too much blood show. And I made the stiff look real cosy, as if he were taking a short nap.’ The effect of his new-found fastidiousness mostly fails to show in the photographs themselves – a corpse is, after all, still a corpse. But the comment suggests a sharpening public sensitivity to the sceno-graphy of violence and the evidence of trauma. In his most shocking image Weegee gives his public back the face of their eagerness for such spectacles: a gaggle of children bright-eyed for a glimpse of ‘their first murder’.

As the first photographs from Abu Ghraib prison began to appear earlier this year, it was hard not to be reminded of this prior instance of America’s self-consciousness with regard to photography and violence. Not that there were many willing to replicate the chilling good cheer on the faces of either era. Rather, what startled was the ease with which so much of the ensuing commentary made the wracked bodies at the centre of those images disappear, as if what we were seeing was instead a snapshot of American society, every bit as alive to cultural codes and rituals as a dead gangster framed by Saturday night bonhomie.

Political perspective made little difference. While certain conservative pundits canvassed the grotesque notion that scenes like these were played out nightly in the fraternity houses of American campuses (or, bizarrely, according to Rush Limbaugh, on the stage of a Britney Spears concert), Susan Sontag’s assertion that ‘the photographs are us’ partook, paradoxically, of the same logic. For Sontag the soldiers were posing in tableaux learned from pornography, acting out scenes whose horrible intimacy was already sanctioned by a culture of Webcasts and easy digital dissemination. But why this insistent focus on the bodily attitude of the assailant or grinning bystander? What seemed to have vanished, precisely, was the body of the victim, obscured as much by interpretation as by the digital veil that covered, belatedly, his shame.

In his recent book Images malgré tout (Images in Spite of Everything, 2003) the art critic Georges Didi-Huberman has gone some way toward exploring this strange vanishing act on the part of the most dreadful aspects of photographic evidence. His starting-point is a series of photographs taken at Auschwitz in 1944. It is well known, writes Didi-Huberman, that photography was officially outlawed at the Nazi concentration camps; in practice, though, the ban was often openly flouted, both by camp guards and visitors. Hence the massive published archive that now exists, despite the Nazis’ stated aim of making all evidence disappear.

The four photographs that interest Didi-Huberman, however, have survived a double interdiction: they were produced by inmates themselves. Of these two are especially revealing. The first, taken, at obvious risk, from within an empty gas chamber, shows a group of prisoners preparing to burn corpses recently removed from the very spot where the photographer is hiding. The second records, in the vague distance, a group of naked women who one can assume are being led to their death. The published versions of these photographs have been subtly, but crucially, altered. In the first, the frame of the gas chamber entrance has been cropped out. In the second, the emaciated body of the woman nearest the camera has been retouched so that she looks more distinct (though the effect, jarringly, is that she looks younger, healthier).

The images have been altered, argues Didi-Huberman, not in order to make them look less terrible, but so that they appear less abstract: as though the very substance of the horror they capture (architecture, flesh) were unreadable, unimaginable. It is as if what they show is too real, too obtuse, to be true. As with certain photographs from Abu Ghraib, the centre and the frame of the image are obscured in order to make of the photograph a recognizable scene, a drama unfolding in the middle distance (in the space between a naked body and the concrete walls of the prison).

Trauma, writes the photography theorist Ulrich Baer, is what cannot be turned into experience, what cannot be assimilated to a subsequent self-image. It persists, however, as evidence: as an image that, in Didi-Huberman’s terms, survives ‘despite everything’. In looking at a photograph, the naive realist is in fact the one who rushes to point out the rituals at work, the artifice deployed, the spectacle being mounted. Evidence is something less readily reducible to a familiar story. In Luc Sante’s book Evidence (1992), a collection of early 20th-century crime scene photographs, or in Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s very different Evidence (1977; reprinted 2004), a selection of enigmatic and resistant documentary images, what holds us is the persistence of bodies and objects, devoid of narrative yet crying out to be witnessed. If there is a sort of spectacle in such photographs, it is something like the theatre of Antonin Artaud: ‘like those tortured at the stake, signalling through the flames’.