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Through whose eyes are we seeing the past?

For decades, photos created by the Nazi regime’s official photographers have shaped how we remember the Holocaust. But this approach may actually be harmful in the fight against anti-Semitism.

Holocaust education plays a key role in combating contemporary anti-Semitism worldwide. But the ambition of Holocaust museums to emphasise the perspective of victims, for example, through the use of testimony, is often at odds with their reliance on Nazi photography when it comes to visual media.

Through whose eyes are we seeing the past? This is an important issue. Nazi photography draws in audiences in emotive ways. But it also manipulates understanding. ‘Generation Z’ are primarily visual learners, and these photos often inadvertently reinforce the racism they are intended to stamp out, while images from those who were persecuted receive little attention.

In a multi-disciplinary project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), we conducted historical research on photography, as well as investigating how these photos are used today in school teaching, and in museums. Photographs are not neutral documents. They reflect particular perspectives and agendas – in this case, all too often those of an anti-Semitic Nazi regime.

"Those persecuted by the regime used photography to create counter-cultural narratives, defending not only their dignity and individuality, but also their national identities from which racial policies sought to exclude them."
Professor Maiken Umbach

Our research also showed that those persecuted by the regime used photography to create counter-cultural narratives, defending not only their dignity and individuality, but also their national identities from which racial policies sought to exclude them. They are a crucial source, providing a different account of this difficult history.

Using these findings, our exhibition, The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust, co-created with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, used technologies such as virtual reality (VR) to transform the way in which we use images to teach about and remember victims of violence and injustice, without perpetuating racial stereotypes.

The stunning VR element of this immersive, multimedia experience was developed with Dr Paul Tennent, of the School of Computer Science and the University’s Mixed Realities Lab.

‘The Eye as Witness’ began its tour in January 2020, to help mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Working with Holocaust survivors has been very special. Martin Stern, who survived multiple camps until he was liberated in 1945, gave us feedback on our VR installation, which greatly improved our re-creation of a scene from the Warsaw Ghetto.

We used an image taken by a Nazi propaganda photographer, showing a group of Jews who have just been arrested sitting on a kerb watched over by a soldier. Thanks to VR goggles, viewers can step inside the scene, and see what may have been happening beyond the frame. What choices did the photographer make? What might have been left out?

However, it is important to avoid voyeurism and not make the image too realistic or violent – we want people to think critically rather than simply feel they had "gone back" to the Holocaust.

The exhibition’s national tour was interrupted by COVID-19; it resumed in January 2021 at the University of Nottingham’s Djanogly Gallery. But this pause meant we were able to develop an online exhibition as an alternative, which we are now trialling in UK classrooms; further international trials are planned. We will evaluate data from the online and physical exhibitions to measure effectiveness in bringing about attitude changes in audiences.

"We found that photos of corpses, taken by Nazis and Allied liberators alike, do little to enhance empathy or understanding; photos by Jewish victims, however, are much more effective in doing this."
Professor Maiken Umbach

We used interactive screens and eye tracking to gain evidence about audience responses to the photos. We found that photos of corpses, taken by Nazis and Allied liberators alike, do little to enhance empathy or understanding; photos by Jewish victims, however, are much more effective in doing this.

These findings have been shared with Lord Pickles, who has a prominent role in the development of the planned Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Westminster, and I have advised the Imperial War Museum London on the design of its new Holocaust Galleries, due to open in 2021.

Our work has also been featured as part of the Culture in Quarantine programme run by BBC Arts and AHRC; it forms part of the Animated Thinking series and the short film is available to view on BBC iPlayer.

Internationally, I have formed close ties with Professor Ofer Ashkenazi and his research team at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Visiting Israel, and working with scholars there on a topic that is, albeit in a radically different way, as central to Israel’s identity as it is to that of Germany, my own country of birth, has been one of the most moving experiences of my life. We are applying for new, joint projects, and beginning to forge new partnerships with other Holocaust museums globally.

Maiken Umbach

Maiken Umbach is Professor of Modern European History in the Department of History.

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