The image, as mysterious as a nightmare, was taken by the British photographer George Rodger on April 20, 1945, as the boy approached his jeep and the four British soldiers traveling with him on a road in southern Germany. When the image was published in Life magazine on May 7, 1945, the caption read: “A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near camp at Belsen.”
…The photograph was reproduced in Postwar, Tony Judt’s magisterial history of Europe since 1945. Judt’s caption focused upon the child’s averted gaze:
Shortly after Germany’s defeat in 1945, a child walks past the corpses of hundreds of former inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, laid out along a country road. Like most adult Germans in the post-war years, he averts his gaze.
In Judt’s reading, the child ceases to be, in Werner Sollors’s words, “a poor innocent young bystander walking about a hellish adult world but … a person deeply implicated in the hell that surrounds him.”
It was only in 1995 that the child in the photograph was given a name and allowed finally to escape his mute servitude as the emblem of Germany’s averted gaze. He was not actually a German bystander at all. He was Jewish, one of the survivors… Once the boy is seen to be a survivor, his averted gaze can be understood in a new way. In Sollors’s memorable words, Sieg, “like so many mythical heroes who got out of Hades … simply must not look back.”
In reading this, I was struck by the absurdity of trying to read deeper significance into a photograph, which, no matter how artfully taken, is merely a representation of that particular fraction of a second. A film sequence that included the moments before and after the one in question would surely offer many other images suggesting different interpretations. A painting, by contrast, obviously has no inherent meaning that doesn’t include the artist’s intention. Whatever you see is there by design. A photograph, though, shows you a mere chance moment, a fleeting image removed from context and encased in amber. Beyond the bare facts of the scene, the rest is your own imagination and projection, a fable agreed upon. How do people not feel silly pretending to discover deeper meaning in them?
July 21, 2014 @ 4:21 pm
But the choice of that moment, and even more so, the selection of that photo to publish or distribute, is as much a moral decision, intention, as a painting, no?
July 21, 2014 @ 9:55 pm
Yes, but still, a photographer can only capture what's already there rather than create from scratch. There are facts about the photographic scene independent of the photographer's decision to press the button. A split-second's facial expression or body language may only appear significant when divorced from context. Maybe that boy was facing away from the row of corpses at that particular moment for the most banal reason possible: maybe he was turning away from dust blowing in his face, for example. Using that image as an allegory of German guilt or Jewish suffering is on a level with reading omens in tea leaves or goat entrails.