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Saving the Picture: Holocaust Photographs in Children's Books

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 24, Number 3, September 2000
pp. 402-431 | 10.1353/uni.2000.0031

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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.3 (2000) 402-431

[Figures]







Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.

--Susan Sontag (96)

Susan Sontag begins On Photography by stating that photographs "enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe" (3). As such, photographs are "an ethics of seeing" (3). When we photograph, and when we look at photographs taken by others, we put ourselves "into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge" (3). In the awkwardness of that phrasing, its implicit questioning of what knowledge means when it derives from photographic images, lies Sontag's recognition of the deceptive power of photographs. For a relation that feels like knowledge is an imitation, a substitute, something presumably not identical to a relation that might produce real knowledge. As her opening chapter title, "In Plato's Cave," emphasizes, in looking at photographs we are always at a distance from the world we believe that we see in the image. Although Sontag insists that photography "changes the terms of confinement in the cave" (3), there is no doubt that we remain inside the cave walls. To blame photography for placing us there would be foolish, for we have always been in the cave; what has changed because of photography is our understanding of what we think we can know outside the cave's walls.

Sontag's text remains a foundational and provocative post-Holocaust text on photography, and the epistemological questions she raises remain relevant to a consideration of how photographs function in children's books about the Holocaust. For if photography gives us a questionable knowledge about the world, it is equally doubtful, given the very power of photography and our belief in its referentiality, how often any viewer pauses to consider if what she derives from the photograph is real knowledge or something less authentic, something that only "feels like knowledge." For isn't the entire point of including photographs, particularly in children's books about the Holocaust, based on our belief that the viewer will learn through a direct confrontation with the photograph that what was "unimaginable" really did take place? Certainly it is not only in children's books about the Holocaust that the knowledge we bring to the photograph, either through prior reading or through the captions that label the image, controls the possible responses: "we don't know how to react to a photograph . . . until we know what piece of the world it is" (Sontag 83-84). But if we understand child readers as those who know less because they bring to the text less experience of the world than adults, then the child's ability to move beyond the implications of the caption is equally diminished. Sontag argues that photographs have multiple meanings; they can never be fully controlled by their captions: "Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy" (20).

Sontag is right, but our need to believe that Holocaust photographs give children access to historical truth makes us very anxious to control such speculative invitations. In contrast to the binary critical discourse that has traditionally devalued photographs in opposition to art and the imagination (Shawcross ix-x), in children's books about the Holocaust, the photograph acts as a marker of the most privileged site, that of the documentary real. For this reason, the Holocaust picture book that does not in some artistic way reproduce or allude to Holocaust photographs is, with rare exceptions (e.g., Eve Bunting's Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust), not the picture book we value. The Alice in Wonderland question, what good is a book without pictures, may have suited a Victorian culture that celebrated childhood fantasy and imagination. But such words are problematic in the discourse of the Holocaust where fiction has an uneasy place; when picture books introduce children to the Holocaust, photographs keep the pictures grounded in the real. It is as though Alice's question had been transformed: what good is a Holocaust picture book without photographs? But what is "curiouser and curiouser" is how photographs produce such knowledge when the...



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