- A Child at Gunpoint: A Case Study in the Life of a Photo
Richard Raskin's spare and meticulous study—which, as the author points out, "may well be the first book devoted to a single photograph" (p. 5)—begins with a kind of visual experiment. How well do we really know that most famous of images bequeathed to us by the Holocaust era, commonly called the "Warsaw Ghetto boy"? As evidence of a problem in public perception, Raskin cites Peter L. Fischl's poem inspired by the photograph in question, "To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up." In the poem, Fischl describes the boy this way: "The Star of David / on your coat / Standing in the ghetto / with your arms up / as many Nazi machine guns / pointing at you."1 Of course, in the original photograph, there is no star on the boy's coat, and no more than one gun pointed in his direction. The implication is that, despite the photograph's iconic status, not everyone visualizes it correctly. With this introduction, Raskin embarks on an investigation into every aspect of the photograph, both to correct any misconceptions and misperceptions, and to fill in every facet of the photo's story. He moves methodically from its formal qualities to its history, context, production, and reception. He continues with an investigation into the identities of the people depicted in it, and concludes with an examination of the photograph's postwar role in selected works of art—most recently, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's "war of images." Thus, this work is unique in its scope and approach, presenting exhaustive research on the reverberations of one important image. Readers will come away appreciating not only Raskin's thoroughness, but also his eye for the photo's qualities and implications. The book is comprehensively documented (listing, for example, a number of relevant web sites), richly illustrated (the back flap features a reproduction of the photo for quick and constant reference), and supported by first-hand information gleaned from contemporary interviews with artists who have used the photograph in their work. Overall, this volume is an excellent experiment in seeing—that is, in looking with fresh eyes at an all-too-well-known image.
Raskin begins with the photo's formal qualities, describing in detail what one sees in it, and numbering each visible person for easy reference. It is clear that the boy, apparently isolated in the right foreground of the image, is the focal point of the photo. Raskin offers his assessment as to why this is the case, paying attention to every aspect of lighting, dress, position, and so forth. In particular, he examines "five properties" of the image (p. 17–22) that call further attention to its subtleties and help explain its ongoing appeal: (1) the fact that this "picture is not so terribly painful to look at" (p. 19) because the Jews featured in it are not in a state of visible physical [End Page 309] suffering; (2) the "posture of surrender" (pp. 19–20) into which the boy is forced, which highlights the photo's "outrageousness" (p. 19); (3) the "compositional values" (p. 20) of the image, which suggest that the photo's focal point (the boy) is a visual space defined by the aesthetically pleasing mathematical ratio of the "Golden Section"; (4) the polarities—such as the presence of both perpetrators and victims—that structure the visual field; and (5) the iconic qualities of the photo, especially "the degree to which it offers us a close, awe-inspiring and effortless connection to the period" (p. 22).
Next, Raskin considers the photograph in historical context, reminding the reader of its origins as a marker of genocide. He presents the story of the "Stroop Report," the infamous document compiled by SS Major General Jürgen Stroop, leader of the Großaktion against the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The photograph first appeared in this document, which Stroop titled "The Jewish Quarter in Warsaw Is No...