visitors book / cur. sapir huberman

Over the last twenty years, ever since completing his studies in photography and art, German-born Erik Schiemann has been systematically photographing extermination camps across Europe. I met him in the Sachsenhausen Museum and Memorial. When we started talking, he was busy capturing the little details, an act that seemed to express a desire to understand something more about the place. He told me he goes there quite often, while I – a third-generation Holocaust survivor from a Jewish family and a new resident of Berlin – got there for the first time. I came to realize that Erik’s recurring visits to Auschwitz, Birkenau, Sachsenhausen and other camps are not a manifesto, nor a statement or a way of learning something else about history, but a product of his private obsession. For me, this echoed my father’s insistence to travel each year to the ceremony commemorating the Martyrs of Zaglambia, which include my grandfather’s family, as though the memorial plaques changed or told a different story each year.

My developing relationship with Erik exposed me to a different perspective, of a post-traumatic second generation which exists also in the German narrative. His photograph collection includes portraits of people who frequent the extermination camps just as often as he does, who work in them, live next to them, and sometimes even look like prisoners from that time. At the edges of the blooming acacia field and on the bricks of the prisoner barrack, I found in his photos a bewildering sense of uncanniness that defies decoding. A theater of characters inside extermination camps posed in front of the camera in a way that does not tell the story of the Holocaust the way I know it.

Jean-François Lyotard argued that certain historical events are impossible to perceive, describe or represent. Our very knowledge of their occurrence and storage in memory constitutes an integral part of our composite attempt to represent them. The only possible way of dealing with the unrepresentable, argues Lyotard, is art of the kind that does not seek to represent or present a reality but rather “present the fact that there is an unpresentable”. While Claude Lanzmann attempts in his film Shoah to capture every shred of testimony, find it in every detail, understand every moment from every possible angle, Erik’s photographs betray an attempt to let go of this hopeless endeavor, following Lyotard’s approach. The reflection in his photographs is his own, in terms of his personal family stories, his melancholy point of view and the subject mirrored in his portraits. This produces tension between what we already know about these places and his own private identity experience.

I found the connection and mutual reading between Erik the documentarian, collector and photographer, Erik the second-generation German man, and myself – a third-generation Jewish woman and curator – to be a lively and fertile interaction raising questions about human relations, photography, testimony and memory. Eventually, I selected a small collection of photos out of his never-ending archive that tell one random story out of thousands, which seeks to connect the two sides like a collection signed in an imaginary visitors book.

Sapir Huberman, independent curator and photographer, Berlin 2014