Online Holocaust Testimony: Questions of Ethics, Pathos, and Media Specificity
by Noah Shenker — University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts
March 05, 2009 – 00:09
Both of these two clips can be found on the website of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, originally founded as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation by Steven Spielberg in 1994. They are but two of the over 52,000 audiovisual testimonies of Holocaust survivors, liberators, and other witnesses, that have been collected and digitized by the Shoah Foundation on its Visual History Archive (or VHA) and made available through an Internet2 connection at subscribing universities and institutions across the world. The first testimonial excerpt of Max Durst is one of several alternating short video clips of interviews that are screened on the Shoah Foundation homepage in an introductory media window placed along side a mosaic of still images of other witnesses. The second segment with Erna Anolik appears on the website’s online testimony viewer displaying various other clips that illustrate moments in the pre-war, wartime, and postwar periods under such topics as “Pre-War,” “Ghettos,” “Camps,” and “Liberation.”
Considering the immense memorial potentiality of the VHA, one must ask how such an enormous collection of testimonies will be activated beyond the confines of the archive and circulate across multiple distribution platforms and reception contexts. For the purposes of this post, I focus my attention on these two online clips as they represent informative examples of the Shoah Foundation’s institutional authorship of testimony brushing up against the personal textures of survivors’ recollections. Turning to the interview segment with Max Durst, it is striking for its compact emotional intensity. It encompasses Max’s experience of liberation, but is short on historical detail, instead focusing our attention on the affective dimensions of his remembrance. The topic of liberation here provides the conceptual and historical framework for anchoring the encounter with the overflow of Max’s traumatic memory. At the same time, in keeping with the established methodology of the Shoah Foundation interview and videography practices, the camera remains fixed in the foundation’s standardized medium close-up framing rather than moving in for a tighter close-up of Max’s face or pulling back to more fully reveal the range of his intense hand and arm gestures. Thus, the emotive core of the survivor’s testimony here is documented but ultimately counterbalanced by the more sober, objective intentions and representational strategies of the VHA.
The second excerpt from the testimony of Erna Anolik is placed on the website under the topic heading of “Camps” and features her description of having been processed upon arrival at Auschwitz. The use of the clip speaks to many of the same issues as those associated with Max’s testimony, though it also introduces a more conspicuous form of institutional intervention as we see an elliptical dissolve midway through the clip. The dissolve bridges Erna’s harrowing description of her arrival at Auschwitz with her recollection of her daily routine in the camp, thus bypassing the events that fall in between and pulling away at a particularly difficult emotional juncture in her interview.
What is lost in this transition? Do the protracted, dialogic, and less dramatic processes that characterize the labor of testimony of survivors like Erna and Max get obscured by the digital instrumentalization of their stories? These questions become more pressing when we consider the fact that while the Shoah Foundation does not edit any testimony as it is preserved in its original form housed within the VHA, it does maintain copyright on the interview and can thus edit and combine the material for subsequent use outside that context. The clips in question represent but two examples of how that copyright is exercised. Therefore, to extend some of Dan’s opening curator questions for this week, I would like to ask: How do you we consider documentary authorship both in regards to the original video interviews with witnesses and with their subsequent edited versions? As archives such as the VHA aim to make these sources digitally accessible, particularly through the use of comprehensive indexing and cataloging structures, what exactly is being mapped along the way? How, if at all, is the interrelationship between affect and cognition being preserved?
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