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Nieborg, M.

Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

Holocaust Photography and its Ethical Problems

In this thesis I question the use of Holocaust photographs. My question was sparked by a single photograph I came across a few years ago and caused me to want to reject looking at Holocaust Photographs without having justified moral arguments for doing that. My research question is: What are the main debates regarding photography, what happens when we apply these theories to Holocaust photography, what kind of debates are specifically sparked by the latter genre and does that give reason, given the way these photographs are used now, to contemplate a more restricted use of Holocaust photography?

In trying to find an answer to my questions I first explored some general theories of photography. I will compare Linfield and Barthes arguments that plead for the medium and Sontag’s thesis that photography leads to violence.

In the second chapter I take a closer look at the genre and use of Holocaust photography during the past decades, in particular through Barbie Zelizer’s claims about our changing memory of the Holocaust. This leads me to the debate between realists and constructivists on the ontological status of photographs, as sparked by four small photographs taken in Auschwitz.

The third chapter is about our reactions towards atrocity photography. Linfield calls this the debate between rejectionist and transcendentalists. The first believe that by looking at photographs taken by Nazis we are putting ourselves not just physically, but morally too, in the position of the perpetrator. The latter believe that through photography we can enter into the experience of the victim and redeem their suffering symbolically.

The final chapter again addresses our practical uses of photographs. I first discuss some often wrongly interpreted photographs, and then move on to Schindlers’ List and Holocaust, film productions which misused their photographic resources. On the other hand there is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which offers visitors hundreds of atrocity photographs in a short visit. I finally return to the photograph that caused this thesis to be written and see if my intuitions were justified. Should we reject looking at photographs of the Holocaust altogether? In my conclusion I plead for a more moderate and informed way of viewing Holocaust photography because I believe the problem lies in the fact that we often do not know what we are seeing.

Last modified:04 April 2014 4.02 p.m.