What does my body know of photography? – Remembering the resistance through art

On Holocaust Memorial Day, Annie Dobson remembers Faye Schulman, photographer and Jewish partisan with her lyric essay.

A colourised version of Faye Schulman’s famous photograph of reunion, Cassowary Colorizations @ Flickr

I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof, Faye Schulman, 2011.

Here is a call to un-karaoke the propaganda:

Faye Schulman is under a blanket. She is developing a photograph of herself in a leopard print coat. In the photograph, she is surrounded by three men with rifles. Everyone in the photograph is smiling. This photograph is a photograph of reunion. Every person in this photograph thought the other people in this photograph were dead. They lived with death and now their dead are here – everyone resurrected, everyone surviving. Everyone in this photograph in the forest is a Jewish partisan. Everyone in this photograph is a document. Everyone in this photograph is a testament. Everyone in this photograph is document, a testament to survival, to fighting back – everyone is here is standing in front of the camera to say we were here and we were here together and we fought back.

On 14 August 1942, Faye Schulman is one of twenty-six Jewish people in the Lenin ghetto to be spared by the Nazis. Schulman is saved on account of her photography skills. She is ordered to develop photographs of the massacre. Schulman obeys, she develops the photographs of the massacre for the Nazis. 

In secret, she makes copies, keeps the copies for herself. 

During a partisan raid, she flees to the forest, she joins the resistance. Later, during a raid on Lenin, she recovers her equipment. Schulman takes over two hundred photographs of the Jewish partisan resistance. For Schulman, photography is documentation is truth-telling is saying here we were is saying we are telling this our way. 

In Camera Lucida, critical theorist Roland Barthes asks, ‘What does my body know of photography?’ I think of the photograph of the Syrian child with their hands up, terrified, mistaking the camera for a gun. I think of the poet Bhanu Kapil wanting ‘to write about the body – that perceives – the coming violence and responds to it – before it has ever happened.’ I think of the word shot. Cameras can be weapons, surveillance often means violence.

Teju Cole, in his New York Times essay, When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.) writes, 

When a group of people is judged to be ‘foreign,’ it becomes far more likely that news organisations will run, for the consumption of their audiences, explicit, disturbing photographs of members of that group: starving children or bullet-riddled bodies.

Barthes splits the photograph into three practices, the operator, the spectator and the spectrum. The operator is the photographer, the photographer operates the narrative. With every photograph, we must ask: Who is the narrator? Who is the narration for? Schulman operates the camera in defiance. Here she is in a leopard print coat aiming a rifle. There is no misery porn here, no victimhood – no one is being exploited. She is also the spectrum of the photograph, the subject. To be both operator and spectrum is to steal the weapon used against you: Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. 

Sculman’s work was clear cut documentation, proof of resistance in its most solid sense. However, the artist Claude Cahun, a Jewish, gender non-conforming person, shows that photography as performance art, photography as fantasy has its own merits in resistance. In her seminal work On Photography, Susan Sontag also describes the medium of photography as ‘inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.’ Through carefully curated self-portraiture, Cahun transforms themself, snaps another reality.

What if life could be exactly this photograph in my hand I am holding out to you? 

Cahun is known for their photography exploring and dismantling notions of gender. Through self-styled performance photography, Cahun resisted the reductive gender binary. Like Schulman, Cahun mostly appears as both operator and spectrum. One of their many self-portraits shows Cahun in their fifties, Nazi eagle sitting firmly between their teeth, biting down. Cahun was given this badge by a fellow prisoner, a German soldier, during their time imprisoned for distributing anti-fascist material. 

Cahun and their partner Marcel Moore created the character Der Soldat ohne Namen (‘The Soldier Without a Name’), a character of resistance. This character aimed to inspire rebellion from within the army by ridiculing the German commanders, drawing attention to the lunacy of war. They typed the words of their character onto tissue paper and posted them through the windows of German staff cars or left them in cigarette packets.

Cahun and Moore were the last prisoners to be released just before Jersey’s Liberation. Taken in 1945, the photograph of Cahun, standing outside, looking at the camera, The Reichsadler between her teeth is both a document of resistance and an emblem of a new future. To imagine a new future, a future of standing in the sunlight, clenching fascism between your teeth, is to resist what has come before. Inscribed on Cahun and Moore’s shared grave, between two stars of David: and then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.


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