In 1988, I made a photograph with inscribed text of Miso Vogel, an Auschwitz survivor living in Indiana. For the narrative, I used notes I had taken while talking with him during our portrait session. I wanted to show his tattoo, which is in and of itself a powerful visual statement about the brutality of the German war against the Jews. I also had him hold a photograph of his father who died at Auschwitz. This image acted as a window and Miso was, for a moment, transported back to a terrible time in his past.
During my year off from teaching as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1991-92, I decided to build a series of images around the photograph of Miso. I began each session with survivors by videotaping their story prior to making portraits with my still camera. Instead of rewriting accounts of the survivors in my own words as in the earliest pieces from this series, I began to excerpt whole chunks of the testimonies verbatim, letting the individuals speak for themselves. In so doing I tried to keep the flavor of the European accents, which often reminded me of the speech of my own grandparents who emigrated from eastern Europe. I looked for small, intimate details in survivors’ narratives rather than grander, more generic experiences or statistical data.
I am fully aware that no one who did not directly experience the Holocaust can truly understand the depths of horror that Jews in Europe endured at the hands of the Nazis. Nevertheless, it is my hope that by opening a window to an individual through their image with an accompanying story of great power, an audience will empathize with the survivors.
Faced with the loss of home and family and confronting a future in a strange land with new language and customs, so many of the survivors I met had learned to live with their pain. Most were able to move their lives forward, deciding that life is too short and precious to consume with hatred and remorse. This work is a testament to the strength of the individual and to the resourcefulness and resiliency of Holocaust survivors who have an important lesson in humanity to teach us all.