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Biography 23.1 (2000) 231-235

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Barbie Zelizer. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. 292 pp. ISBN 0-226-97972-5, $27.50.

Barbie Zelizer's Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye forcefully combines three areas of study: the history of photojournalism, in the context of which the author chronicles the forging of a new profession through the need to bear witness at the sites of camp liberation at the end of World War II; the history of the reception of the photography of atrocities in the U.S. and Great Britain, and their re-emergence in, and effect upon, the contemporary documentation of genocide; and, at once most beguilingly and most elusively, an examination of how the contemporary conditions of collective memory have changed under the influence of the photography of atrocities. Informed by this triad of concerns, Remembering to Forget offers a novel, and finally sobering, perspective on the questions of memory and representation that continue to concern scholars from a host of disciplinary backgrounds.

As Zelizer points out in her introduction, there is to date little scholarship on the interaction of memory and visuality, beyond the crucial insight that visual memory is material in a way that other memories are not, and that images help to anchor the otherwise fluid and fluctuating nature of collective memory. Remembering to Forget does not substantially broaden our knowledge of the precise relationship of image to memory, nor does it claim to do so. Instead, but just as importantly, we learn what questions to ask of photography, especially in those cases when images are called upon to bear witness to atrocity. Is the image or the word better suited to bearing [End Page 231] witness? In what way, and with what differences, does each perform its task? How, when, and to what end are images co-opted into memory? When does a collective memory formed on the bedrock of images of atrocity lose the capacity to attend to contemporary atrocities? At what point, in other words, do we remember to forget?

Before addressing this last and most pressing of the study's questions, Zelizer offers a compelling history of the evolving relationship between photography and the printed word in America and Great Britain. She argues that the scenes of horror encountered in the Nazi concentration camps forced together two previously unrelated media in an effort to document and bear witness to the apparently unprecedented. Exaggerated tales of horror had been part of World War I, and the earliest accounts of Nazi Germany were greeted with corresponding suspicion. The first depictions of horror to reach the West were of bad quality, inaccurately captioned, of uncertain origin, and scarce; furthermore, the Western press had at first no idea what to do with them. When the U.S. and British journalists and photographers got to Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen, the world was thus ill-prepared to receive their news. Transmitted as eyewitness reports to uphold the credibility and the authority of narratives the press had never before had to convey, it used as its content the chronicle of liberation in a bid to organize the chaotic material encountered on-site. The journalist looked to photography to help bear witness, and for the first time in press history, the image, as the only tool that could do justice to what was being observed, superseded the word.

As Zelizer points out, the acts of bearing witness and of authenticating other journalists' stories by repeating and confirming their findings became more important than the scoop: it became an act of actual moral importance. At the same time, the journalists' eyewitness accounts always also included the limits their purveyors were up against, for the standards of news gathering could generally not be met under the conditions. The tone and mode of reporting offered insufficient strategies for narration, and the prevailing standards of language could not adequately convey the horrors. Like the chronicles of liberation produced by the first journalists to enter the camps...


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