Is it worth photographing concentration camps and – if so – why? Aren’t attempts to refer back to tragic experiences doomed to failure from the outset?
Janicka started to take photographs two years after her first visit to a camp. Before that, she merely kept documentation and notes for personal use. Later, she commented:
I could not imagine pulling out my camera and looking into the viewfinder to start framing or searching for the optimum angle while waiting for the best lighting... What criteria should I apply?
When asked where the idea for this work came from, the artist replied:
Out of the air and from whispers in the wind. From the everyday bustle, here and now. From trips to Bełżec, Sobibór and others.
Janicka photographed the skies over concentration camps. That area, that void, that space or, as she called it, the air, implies at least several things in this work. It is a space where the ash from crematorium ovens once swirled. It also refers to hate that can so easily dominate and asphyxiate public space. In these pictures shot on photographic negative, the material aspect was also important – a physical trace.
Analysing the form of this work reveals an open composition, restricted only by a black frame bearing the name of the negative’s manufacturer, the German firm Agfa. This minor detail is also significant: the producer of photosensitive material was part of the IG Farben concern which made donations to the Nazi Party and the SS, and hired thousands of workers inside occupied countries. Simultaneously, many iconic images of the Holocaust were captured on film it had manufactured.
Instead of a concrete image, the artist chose to create a conceptual work – a white square as a symbol of something impossible to capture, describe or convey. A similarly limited horizon of the imagination was suggested in 1943 by Jankiel Wiernik, a prisoner of Treblinka, whom Janicka quoted in an interview:
Even in their wildest imaginings, no one can create images like the ones they have seen and experienced.
The work’s title refers to the 'ghetto benches' introduced in Polish higher educational establishments in 1937. Mark-books belonging to students of Jewish origin were stamped with the words 'odd places at desks'.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MB, Nov 2018
This text is part of the project Metaphors of Independence: Poland In 100 Photos.
To coincide with the centenary of Poland regaining its independence, we have created a selection of photographs that allow us to understand both yesterday and today. A hundred photographs but so much more. Find out more.