Birkenau – Photographing the Holocaust Pt.2

Birkenau is a horrific place, a scene of unspeakable brutality and a constant reminder of where nationalism, racism and bigotry can lead to.

From a photographic perspective, it’s best to document what’s there for one’s own memory or reflection  – certainly not a place for selfies.  The visual imagery of course is instantly recognisable so I kept it simple especially in a harsh winter’s afternoon light.

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Over the years there has been media reports and online discussions over the conduct of student groups visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau with Israel flags and chanting, sometimes with reported unruly behaviour.  I was visiting with a group of Irish students including those studying video/ photography and we had a lot of discussion before the visit on how to approach using cameras as well as discussion afterwards on the content we shot.  The photos below are of a group of Israeli students who were behaving in the manner described above.  I took a picture but didn’t video it.  Is the behaviour appropriate?  Coming from Northern Ireland where we’re also in a permanent state of dealing with sensitivities of recent past and 300 years of turbulent history, we wouldn’t condone such behaviour from our own students.

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Auschwitz – photographing the Holocaust pt. 1

Auschwitz is somewhere everyone should really visit –  to witness the scene and symbol of the descent from civilised society to the depths of human depravity in less than a decade.  This wasn’t my first trip to a concentration camp – I’d been to Buchenwald and Begren-Belsen in Germany  – so the shock to the system was a bit subdued compared to others in my group experiencing this for the first time.

Like most visitors, I brought my camera but how should you go about photographing what is a memorial, a museum, a crime-scene albeit one on most tourist itineraries to this part of Poland.  The debate on taking selfies at Auschwitz has of course broken the internet over recent years, but  photographing what’s there to try and capture its impact or simply to document what’s there now is as valid as writing about it.  A bit of sensitivity goes without saying.

The two sites are visually very different.  Auschwitz 1 is the better-preserved site and has more of a memorial/museum feel to it while Birkenau is unrelentingly bleak and appalling. To compare I’ve shown Auschwitz 1 in colour and Birkenau in monochrome.

When you enter the camp, the first striking visual is the sign.  It’s a replica to replace stolen the original but doesn’t lessen its impact.  We all know the context.

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As you walk round the site, the barbed wire and lookout posts are all around.

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Even the shape of the posts and the street lamps lend to the sinister feel of the place

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Several of the blocks retain their designation with some explanatory signs.  Block 10 was notorious for medical experimentation.


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Inside the blocks there are some restrictions on photography.  The office looks innocuous until you see the Hitler portrait.  I’ve often found the bureaucracy and industry behind the Holocaust to be especially chilling.

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Many blocks have exhibits of possessions taken from those killed at Auschwitz.  One of the better known exhibits is of the shoes

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I’m not sure if photography was permitted in this area but the crematorium below – interior and exterior – is a reminder of the industrial brutality.

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And that’s Auschwitz 1.  Next, was the quick bus ride to Birkenau.

Photos shot on the Olympus E-450 DSLR