There are images that have shaped our perception of history. From the first cave paintings that shed light on how our prehistoric ancestors lived, to the endless number of portraits, paintings, and photographs, images have been the most efficient way to record humans throughout time. There are many memorable photos, like the one of the kiss in Times Square when WWII ended, the iconic “Tank Man,” or the devastating image of the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned as he tried to reach Greek shores. Especially in the case of conflicts, images have proven to be a more effective way to impact the audience than reading documents and books on the event. No matter how many times we read in papers about the conflict in Syria (or any given event), images communicate and appeal more to an audience than many written texts.
One of the most terrifying and shocking moments in the history of humanity is, without a doubt, the Holocaust, and the photographic and video evidence managed to give it a face and make people aware of the despicable events that occurred at the Nazi concentration camps. Through books, documentaries, films, and, of course, photographs, we’ve become witnesses of not only what human beings are capable of doing in certain conditions, but also of the resilience of those who survived such atrocities. This is one of the most visually recorded historical events, but have you ever wondered who was in charge of documenting the horrors of the life at concentration camps?
A huge part of these records come from the footage the allies took when they liberated the camps, but there are many images that came from within and that were taken since the camps were created. We all know of the Nazi’s obsession with documenting everything related to their regime, but it’s difficult to imagine that what was meant to be a record of their activities would become evidence of their cruelty. One of the most unsettling photo collections was taken in Auschwitz, the most infamous concentration camp. Here, Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish prisoner, was in charge of taking pictures of other inmates. He was forced to work as the photographer of the camp due to his previous camera knowledge, and he worked hand in hand with officers who would command him thousands of profile photos of people to complete their files.
When the camp started experimenting with gas chambers and became a factory of death, Brasse was commissioned to document the murder processes. Moreover, he had to work with one of the evilest characters of history, the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. He had to document all the hideous experiments he performed on humans. This man wanted to find a scientific way to improve the Aryan race, and in his unscrupulous attempts, he subdued thousands of prisoners to sadistic and deadly tests. While he had to follow the Nazi officer’s instructions, Brasse also used his artistic abilities to portray the horrors of this time.
His profession saved his life, but left him with scars too hard to heal. When Germany’s defeat was imminent, he was ordered to destroy all the photographs, but he managed to save some thousands to show the world what he had witnessed. Despite the fact that he was one of the few prisoners who were “better treated” (he would get more food, decent clothes, and was allowed to shower frequently because he worked for the officers), this experience tormented him until the end of his life. When he was finally free, he tried to resume his career as a photographer, but just by looking through the lenses, he would remember all those people hopelessly posing for him.
Wilhelm Brasse passed away in 2012, but his legacy will be relevant forever. The photographs he saved are now being displayed at several museums dealing with the Holocaust. But, more importantly, they’re a reminder of our own human nature. They show us how easy we can become evil beings when given the opportunity, and how strong we can get to overcome it. Especially today, with all the conflicts bursting all around the world, we should see these photographs and be moved and shocked. More than a morbid exercise, looking at this devastating evidence should make us see that these horrors can’t keep going on in the world.
New York Times