"School Photos and Their Afterlives": Bearing Witness

In The WitnessMirta Kupferminc reverses the gaze of Nazi amateur photographer Walter Genewein, who took over six hundred 35mm color slides in the Lódz ghetto between 1940 and 1944. Kupferminc responds to Genewein's Nazi gaze by creating an imaginary encounter between him and another photographer, Mendel Grossman, a Jew whose clandestine images bear witness to the details of everyday Jewish life in the ghetto. Employed as an official photographer by the Jewish Council, Grossman stashed film stock, secured a small camera, and photographed surreptitiously—at times, through a buttonhole in his coat or a crack in a door—ensuring that a record of a population slated for destruction would survive (slide 3).

Kupferminc's The Witness responds specifically to one of Genewein's color images of young schoolchildren waiting for food in front of a school building (see slides 4 and 5).

What do the children see when, holding metal bowls and waiting for food, they face the camera of a powerful Nazi official? In Kupferminc's imagined scene, Grossman is also present during the taking of this photo, photographing clandestinely from somewhere behind the children, and the Nazi photographer, Genewein, himself becomes the object of Grossman's surreptitious camera gaze. Kupferminc's reframing sends us back to the original image, revealing a reversed visual field in which the children stare back in subtle acts of defiance and refusal. Genewein and his camera have become the object of their gaze.

In her own handwriting on the surface of the print, Kupferminc inscribes the story of Grossman's courageous photographic acts of witness (see slide 6). 

The artist writes: 

"This work is a tribute to photography as a tool of resistance. I chose to highlight the possibility it offers to see beyond the camera lens . . . My handwriting in this work constitutes a kind of "drawing": although it is completely readable, no one will read all I have written on the print. Nevertheless, the texture of the graphic handwriting produces a veil that, paradoxically, unveils Mendel's hidden way of taking the photos . . . While writing, I felt like a scribe who copies a millenary text on the scrolls of a Torah, to be transmitted from generation to generation."

The artist has created a number of additional images in tribute to Mendel Grossman's photographic acts of resistance for a limited-edition artist's book titled The Witness (see slides 7-10).