Exploring the ‘Perpetrators’ Gaze – Visual semantics of the “Auschwitz Album” and its Role in the Context of Mass Murder
The “perpetrators’ gaze” is a frequently cited phenomenon within the historical and public discourse on photographs that Nazi perpetrators took of their crimes and victims. It is usually referred to with a sense of moral concern and alienation. Despite the ubiquity of the term methodological approaches and empirical findings are largely missing from the discourse.
This paper presents a case study of the “Auschwitz‐Album”, a well‐known document compiled by the SS‐Erkennungsdienst in Auschwitz‐Birkenau depicting the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Hungary in the summer of 1944. With regard to the album, the “perpetrators’ gaze” is to be understood as a specific layer of meaning that shapes the visual interpretation – and reception – of Nazi genocide until today. Its analysis serves as a crucial starting point to counter the all too often illustrative use of the photos, which reinforces interpretative patterns provided by the SS itself.
Drawing on a historical contextualization of the photographs as well as intermedia and narrative theory, the paper pinpoints the following issues: How do we detect and decode the constructiveness of SS‐photography systematically? What layers of encoded interpretation must be considered in such a complex medium? And how do power relations manifest themselves in the photographic representation of mass murder? Whilst exploring the multi‐faceted relationship between the mass murder and the visual narrative, an interdisciplinary framework is proposed to deconstruct meaning purposefully fitted for communication within the SS.
The analytical findings lay the groundwork (e.g. for new editions and exhibitions of the album) for a more critical understanding of the function of photography in the context of genocide, the highly calculated and purposeful visual representation as well as its problematic informative value regarding the historical mass murder of Jews from Hungary.