The Eye as Witness

by: Veronique Mistiaen

We all have seen images of Nazi ghettos and concentration camps. But through whose eyes are we seeing this past?

As the country is reflecting on 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen death camps, an innovative exhibition is asking us to consider that question.

“The Eye as Witness”, a year-long, UK-wide exhibition co-produced by the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM) and the University of Nottingham, is using creative technology to incite us to reconsider the past, exploring the political and moral motives for witnessing and recording the Holocaust, and explore its contemporary relevance – particularly looking at challenging racism and hatred.

“We always put the Holocaust in a box,” says Marc Cave, Interim CEO National Holocaust Centre & Museum.

“With this exhibition, we are trying to make it relatable to younger generations and their own context,” he continued.

“What do we see when we look at photos of ‘the others’, the Jews, the Rohingya, the refugees, people from minority groups, people sleeping rough? And what do we not see – and why?”

Fitted with Virtual Reality headsets, we ‘step into’ a famous Nazi photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto. We are on the street in front of frightened men and women sitting on the pavement while an armed soldier stands guard.  We can observe what the Nazi photographer behind us chose to leave out of the frame: the machine gun nest on the right, the burning buildings and the trucks waiting to take the prisoners to extermination camps.

“Everything in our reconstruction is based on historical evidence: we wanted to give people a feel for what it might have felt like,” says Assistant Professor Paul Tennent, Mixed Reality Lab at Nottingham University’s School of Computer Science.

“But our main purpose was not just a recreation of the past, but to allow the visitor to think about what is not in the photo, who framed the photo that way and why, and who is the photo for. We hope that people will look at the other pictures in the exhibition and ask themselves the same questions.”

Looking at photos of the Warsaw ghetto and others with modern eyes, we feel mostly compassion or pity, but these photos were taken by propaganda photographers to make Holocaust victims appear helpless and inspire disgust. Their desperate state was supposed to show their “racial otherness”, to turn them into sub-humans, Cave says.

These photos don’t show that most of the people in there were about to be taken to the gas chambers nor that many had fiercely resisted during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. They also do little justice to the dignity of these victims; nor do they help us realise that these people had often lived perfectly ‘everyday’ lives only days before the Nazis came to power.

Next, the exhibition displays rarely seen photos taken in secret by Jewish people and members of the anti-Nazi resistance, who, at great risk, used the camera to record the story as they saw it: moments of private life in this desolate environment, of tenderness, of resilience and resistance.  There are also illicit photos taken by women at Ravensbruck, who recorded evidence of medical experiments performed on them, and four photos taken from inside the gas chamber showing burning of bodies of murdered victims in open air. These photos show the importance of bearing witness for further generations.

We can also listen the words of survivors speaking to us today, through The Forever Project, the NHCM’s digitally interactive experience that lets us not just watch a survivor talk, but have a question & answer session with them, even when they are no longer alive.

“We have relied too much on Nazi propaganda photos to visualise the horror of the Holocaust,” says Professor Maiken Umbach, University of Nottingham. “Focusing on photos and testimonies of victims helps us understand issues that are sadly becoming increasingly pressing in the modern world, such as anti-Semitism, racism, fake news and prejudice.”

Shocking images of victims of violence and those fleeing from it may alert us to many contemporary global injustices. But how much do they tell us about the perspective of the victims? Do they allow us to see real people, or do they obscure the very situations they claim to document?

The same propaganda techniques used by the Nazis “to permeate and legitimate anti-Jewish hate are being used on social media today by the Hard Left and the Hard Right,” Cave warns.

“Today so much communication is visual.  Pictures and moving images are manipulated more than we think. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then fake news is 1,000 times more sinister in photographic form.”

Supported by Arts Council England, the Eye as Witness will be touring UK venues from January 2020 to March 2021, including the Imperial War Museum North, Salford; The Bradford Peace Museum; South Hampstead Synagogue, London; The National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire; and Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. For more info:

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, covering human rights, social and humanitarian issues, global development and the environment. She also runs training in the UK and internationally on constructive journalism and reporting diversity.  @VeroMistiaen;

Photo Credit: David Parry