Jason Francisco: Alive and Destroyed

A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time

Published on 01/10/ 2021

When we speak of the Holocaust today, we speak of two things: the Holocaust as history, which belongs to the past, and the Holocaust as culture, which belongs very much to the present. We are currently about 75 years from the middle of the catastrophe (taking 1943 as a midpoint), and it has taken all of those seven decades for a decently complete historical account to emerge. What is true about the Holocaust as history––as fact, information, data, analysis––is just as true about the Holocaust as culture, and the contest over the meanings, lessons, implications and burdens of that information is becoming more and not less urgent.

Part document and part visual poem, Alive and Destroyed: A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time is an experimental documentary work that grapples with the long afterlife of the Holocaust, an effort to approach loss, rupture, and mourning by looking into the zone of overlap between seeing and the impossibility of imagining. The work wrestles with the problems of giving-image to traumatic history, not in the narratively stabilizing terms of conventional documentary photography, but in a more fluid photographic form that mixes loss and incomprehension into witness and avowal.

On one hand, the project attempts to teach about the extraordinary scale and intensity of the events that we collectively call the Holocaust. Like traditional documentary, the project presumes that understanding depends on a subject being seen in the first place. Against the broad tendency to reduce the Holocaust to its most notorious and centrifugal sites, such as Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, this project focuses on the small and often forgotten localities where the genocide also occurred––over 42,500 of them, as documented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum––including town ghettos, slave labor camps, transit and subcamps, prisons, hiding places, forest massacre sites, and deportation routes. Alive and Destroyed takes a decidedly de-centered approach to the Holocaust, looking into a simultaneity of places where a great spectrum of genocidal events happened, toward what might be called a dispersive and relocalized vision of historical memory.

This map shows German control over Europe in 1942, at its greatest extent—Nazi Germany, its allies, and territories under German occupation. Overlaid is the footprint containing the sites of my work between 2010 and 2019 for Alive and Destroyed. This region was the Holocaust’s epicenter. Roughly the eastern half of this zone was the area of the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, and the western half was the area of the so-called Holocaust by Gas. Below is a list of the specific locations where I have worked between 2010-2019 on Alive and Destroyed.

On the other hand, the project understands photographs to function not just as information, but as sites of mourning, following my conviction that the art of mourning is essential to civilizational maturation. On this level, Alive and Destroyed wrestles with the very capacity of images to handle remembrance of genocide in the first place. Unlike most documentary work, which trades on the conceit that photographs allow us vicarious control, mastery and possession of what they show, the pictures in Alive and Destroyed are fragile and unresolved. Made with a large format camera (and without digital manipulation), each of the pictures could be called a reckoning in the form of a visual dialectic.

In each picture, a corridor of focus runs through a differentially blurred visual field, usually at an oblique angle through the visible space. The zone of focus operates like an intrusion, a cutting-through what is otherwise inchoate, and at the same time the visual field surrounds and presses in upon the focal corridor. It took me a long time of experiment to find a visual language with anything like the right balance and tone. The result––to the extent that I am successful––is a type of picture in tension and also in harmony with itself, a type of image that is as descriptive as it is elusive, as declarative as it is non-conclusive.

And this is the goal as I have set it out for myself: to find a visual form appropriate to the nuances of the subject itself. Partly my search is a response to mercurial character of the geography, which is a mixture of visible and invisible ruination, the inert remnants of genocide and the radiating effects of historical devastation still moving in and through the living world, whose livingness and aliveness is also palpable and real. Partly my search is a conceptual response to what seem to me the preponderant truths of loss as they meet the urgency of avowal––a need to find form for the ways the catastrophe slips away from remembrance precisely in the effort to remember, leaving a cultural inheritance that is volatile and perpetually in the process of formation. Or to put it differently, Alive and Destroyed distinguishes between the work of memory and remembrance, and attempts to do both. Where memory is concerned with the accuracy of representations of the past, remembrance is concerned with the adequacy of the imagination for the past. Where memory is concerned with the past on its own terms, remembrance is preoccupied with the past on the terms of the present that keeps coming.

I worry that the Holocaust is becoming steadily more calcified in Western historical memory, as distinct from its more turbulent shape in contemporary Polish and Ukrainian collective memory. Western European and American peoples stand to learn a great deal from the cultural complications of the Holocaust in the places where it actually occurred, the ways in which the genocide of the European Jews remains very much an unfinished historical phenomenon. Where it happened it is, to a large extent, still happening. It persists as a complex of destructive forces rippling forward in time, its “lessons” contradictory and hotly debated. And I take a lesson from the challenges, the perils of lesson-making. To me, approaching the Holocaust justly means resisting the urge to treat its losses as unduly stable memory-objects, and resisting the urge to approach photography as a form of “capturing” meaning. Instead, looking into the aftermath of genocide means, in effect, the opposite: creating images of release, images that explore a fuller and more pressing incompleteness in understanding. It means directing photography’s special capacity to render presence-mixed-with-absence toward historical experience that is, in and of itself, fugitive and unsettled. And it means a willingness to approach traumatic history beyond the framework of storytelling, which is not to diminish the need to render experience in the form of stories, but an acknowledgment of the limits of that approach.

A great deal about the traumatic past does not resolve itself into stories given in language or in images, and seems to me to require a form which could be called the contemplative space within which stories themselves dwell, however they dwell––in elegant shapes or in fragments, in unbroken wholes or in shards, in extroverted energy or in muteness. The pictures of Alive and Destroyed attempt to create just such spaces.
Read more at Jason Francisco's website here.