When Ulrich Baer considers giving memory a place he considers The Experience of Place, Picturing Nothing, the Photograph’s Reference, the Limits of Allegory, Landscape and Trauma, the Limits of Documentary Photographs and the Viewer as Witness, (P.61, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma).
Using Mikael Levin’s project War Story, Baer is able to look at all of his considerations in respect of giving memory a place. He comments on Levin’s placing the viewer before a landscape, “who spatial dimension is on the verge of collapsing into a flat abstraction” (P65, ibid) which seems, of course, a fitting visual metaphor considering that most often time erodes the possibility of seeing the trace of previously experienced trauma, be it trauma to the land, to an individual or to a group.
If a photograph shows no particular evidence or markers of something which happened at a particular location in the past it does so for a reason. That Mikael Levin’s photographs omit derelict areas that point particularly to the Holocaust allows for a particular type of communication. Baer describes Levin as having employed, “a classic aesthetic means of drawing attention to the difficulties of linking, on the one hand, philosophical efforts to understand and historicist attempts to explain with, on the other hand, the actual events of the exterminations”, (P67, ibid).
This can be similarly explained by stating the difference between Levin’s photographs that document his journey following his father’s before him and what Campany calls aftermath photography. When we try and understand something horrifying, it can be stated that we sometimes are prone to looking for a sense of “closure,” (Campany, D, (2003) Safety In Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’) rather than to want to look properly at the horror.
There is no safety in numbness’ to embrace Campany’s phrase, in following the events of violence, albeit many years later when the events and circumstance weigh so heavily. Photographing the place or location trauma took place or more bluntly was actioned, is not avoiding the photographing of what is difficult to document – to fail to face what is real, in an attempt to present cool photographs of something closer to the cleaned-up closure of what has sometimes been referred to as aftermath photography. It is precisely the opposite: it is of profound emotion and yet of what is ‘unseen’, closed, over, swept away by closure seekers who wish to present a narrative of untruth and their reasonable level of respectability.
Trauma is not eroded by being unacknowledged or forgotten about by the powers of collective amnesia that population groups employ. “Trauma, that is, does not simply serve as record of the past but precisely registers the force of an experience that is not yet fully owned” (P. 151, Caruth, Trauma and Experience: Introduction), and this is as valid when the trauma is not owned by the wider populous including the instigators as it is when the ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ of the trauma hasn’t been able to fully own it.
Baer, Ulrich, 2002, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.
Caruth, C, (1995) Trauma and Experience: Introduction, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Campany, D, (2003) Safety In Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ [http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ – last accessed 14/06/17]