The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research hosted professors Marianne Hirsch (Columbia University) and Leo Spitzer (Dartmouth College), who gave a lecture based on their recently published book School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. The lecture, entitled "'No Cameras, No Questions!' School Photos in Haunted Concentrationary Sites," focused on three case studies about the role and meaning of school photos in the following concentrationary sites: boarding schools for Native American children in the US and Canada, Nazi ghettos, and internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Professor Hirsch and Professor Spitzer opened their lecture with images of recent protests against the detention of migrant children on the US-Mexico border, pointing to the Trump administration’s now-abandoned plan to station those children at the US Army post at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, which has a longer history of being used for detention purposes by the United States government. Since Trump’s administration abandoned this plan in 2019, over one million asylum seekers has been detained, 70,000 of them children. At the detention camps where these children are held, photography is not allowed. In relation to this, professors Hirsch and Spitzer asked: What would the public see if photography were allowed in these detention centers? What would photography do in this case? To try to answer these questions, they focused on the above-mentioned three case studies about school photos in concentrationary sites, examining what these cases can tell us about the role of photography in these circumstances. They noted that school photos can both reveal and obscure past injustices, challenge and expand our understanding of resistance, and be mobilized towards justice and repair. They positioned school photos in relation to the concept of “liquid temporality,” or the idea that images are not fixed objects in time, but that their constellations of meaning change with each new viewer and each new context in which they are observed.
Professor Hirsch and Professor Spitzer then turned to the three case studies in question. The first case study detailed the role, use, and meaning of school photos taken in boarding schools for Native American children at the turn of the 20th century. During this period, and long into the 20th century, Native American children in the United States and Canada were forcefully taken from their families and sent to boarding schools. In this context, the main purpose of school photos taken in these boarding schools was to display conversion and cultural assimilation of Indigenous children to hegemonic American culture and its beliefs. These photos were intended by their creators to illustrate the successful socialization and acculturation of Native Americans, which was demonstrated through the genre of “before and after” photos that implied progress and change according to the mission of assimilation. However, professors Hirsch and Spitzer noted that the suffering of those photographed is invisible in the photos, as is the ensuing development of pan-Indian identity. They also pointed out that photos expose their own contradictions, giving a vivid example of photos of boarding school life taken by students themselves, which, according to them, give voice to students who are often invisible and presented as objects in institutional photos.
Their second case study focused on school photos from Nazi ghettos during World War II. During the time when official schools in ghettos were still operating, Nazi photographers took a number of photographs of ghetto schoolchildren for propaganda purposes, either depicting Jews as inhuman or showing “normalcy.” While these photos were shaped by the “Nazi gaze,” they still, according to professors Hirsch and Spitzer, displayed subtle acts of resistance with some children staring back at the photographer and refusing to comply with the Nazi photographer’s organizing gaze. After the Nazis outlawed official ghetto schools, some Jewish teachers established clandestine, underground schools in ghettos, and there exist both sanctioned and clandestine photos of these schools taken by Jewish photographers. Professor Hirsch and Professor Spitzer noted that, just like in the case of boarding school photos taken by students themselves, these photos also show a level of intimacy and collaboration with those photographed that are a striking contrast to photos taken by the perpetrators.
The final case study concerned school photos from World War II-era internment camps for Japanese-Americans in the United States. According to professors Hirsch and Spitzer, the surviving images of these camps portray them as “normal” to support the US government’s argument that camp inmates were treated properly. Professional photographers hired by the government took many of the photos. Some of them, like Dorothea Lang, did not follow the official guidelines for taking photographs in the camps, and aligned with the perspective of those incarcerated. In addition, although the use of camera was outlawed among the incarcerated, some of them smuggled their cameras into the camps and took photos clandestinely. These photos, again, showed intimacy and camraderie among the inmates.
Professor Hirsch and Professor Spitzer concluded their lecture by returning to the topic of current protests against the detention of migrant children in the United States. They noted that, at these protests, we see the ghosts of violent past represented by protesters themselves who often refer to past injustices or are carrying photographs of their family members who were also incarcerated – Jewish survivors of the Holocaust or Japanese Americans who were in internment camps. They pointed out that although we cannot access current detention camps for migrant children or see any photographs of them, these protesters act as surrogates for incarcerated children.
The lecture was followed by an engaging discussion, which included questions on a variety of topics: how different the lecture would be if given ten years ago and in a different political climate; how photographs change how we look at the institution of school; whether we are replicating repression when showing perpetrators’ photographs; the types and range of research that went into professors Hirsch and Spitzer book project; the effects of globalization and technology on the intensity and forms of oppression; and the effect of today’s proliferation of imagery on the level of viewer’s engagement.
Summary by Badema Pitic