I see the world as though I’m watching a movie. Black and white fading into color, people passing by in slow motion and the lighting setting the scene. It’s always been like this for me. People describe a story to me and I vividly watch it come to life. However, when I encountered my first Holocaust survivor in 1997 in Prague, I wasn’t prepared for the movies I would see in my head as the 90 year-old woman recounted her memories to me. I photographed her, but as I did so I saw the past and the present cinematically colliding before my eyes and through my lens.
My photographic project is entitled Marked For Life. This title refers to the fact that those survivors given tattoo's in Auschwitz were chosen to live a little longer and were allowed to assist in the killing process by being forced to sort through the clothes of the dead, by having to dig mass graves, by having to place those prisoners gassed into the ovens of the crematoria's—thus marking them for life, literally and figuratively. Since 1997, I have photographed numerous Holocaust survivors in Northern California, New York, Poland and the Czech Republic. Not all are survivors of Auschwitz, but all have been Marked For Life.
When the local bus dropped me off at the Majdanek death camp in Lubalin, Poland two years later, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was as though I were seeing a movie set and viewing through the lens of the camera—complete with a wide pan of the macabre landscape. What I encountered was a blackness I’d never seen or felt with such intensity before. What was so chilling was the immense scale and precise layout of the camp as far as the eye could see and the black color of the remaining buildings and crematorium chimneys. I wasn't quite prepared for the stark realism and the horror that seeing “the chimneys” would signify. It was all like a horror movie only lacking in a menacing sound track, though filled with an eerie silence.
Movies have dulled my responses to real horror. I’m no longer sure what I’m looking at is real or a cinematic facsimile. This body of work represents and is about real people who’ve experienced something incomprehensible and have survived—presented through the context of movies. It’s about Holocaust survivors, how places evoke memory, numbness and cinema’s realistic ability to describe in detail how it all seamlessly comes together.
Having been influenced by movies for most of my life, my experience of listening to Holocaust survivors recount their memories led me to experience and interpret them as intense short films. Films that moved between black and white and color. Through the appearance of cinematic sequencing in the construction of the visual narratives, I’m utilizing the look of film stills as the vehicle to contain the survivors’ memories. I have chosen to work with large-scale prints in order to confront the viewer with the magnitude of the survivors’ experiences and to convey their emotional intensity as well as to reinforce the sense that the experience I have of these people and their memories is larger than life.
I've found that traumatic memories are burned into the psyche and seep back into consciousness on their own volition. In cinematic theory, the persistence of vision states that the retina of the eye retains an image of what we see a fraction of a second after the object is removed or the light goes out or we shut our eyes. Even if we close our eyes, the image is burned into our retinas. For Holocaust survivors, the border between memory and the present is a permeable one. Many Holocaust survivors have images so burned into their retinas that the persistence of traumatic memory is akin to seeing short films played over and over of horrific moments—as time goes by these fragmented memories carry a life of their own.
Marked For Life suggests to the viewer visually the overlapping of the past and the present that occurs simultaneously for each survivor. This work has propelled me to explore how trauma affects the human spirit—how in spite of it all, there is a spark, a luminosity that can still come through.