You may have heard the story of how I came to create the series “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” but there’s another story within the story: the story of Auschwitz No. 4.
My family and I were vacationing in Kraków, Poland and we had a free day. As we discussed what we should do, I was hoping the others would not want to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau, because I really did not want to go to a “death camp.“
But the family outvoted me and so off we went.
As we took a tour bus to the camps, I thought about where we were going. I thought that if there were a sacred place on earth, this surely must be one of them, and so I decided that I would not photograph there. I thought it might be sacrilegious, or at least disrespectful.
And so as we got off the bus, I asked the driver if I could leave my gear on board, but he replied, no, he would not be responsible for it. And so I began the tour, with gear in hand.
The tour was impactful and within 15 minutes I became so overwhelmed by what I saw, that I excused myself and went outside to catch my breath. Standing alone and staring down at my feet, I began to think about those who had stood where I stood, and were now dead. I thought about those who had walked where I was walking, on their way to the gas chamber.
Then I began to wonder if their spirits still lingered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then this thought just came into my mind: I needed to photograph their ghosts.
And so I did.
That is how “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau“ series came to be. And now for the other story: the story behind Auschwitz No. 4.
I had a Vision of how I wanted these images to look; dark images with light contrasting ghosts. To create these, I would set my tripod at a location, and using a long exposure, I would transform the camp’s visitors into ghosts.
It would take between two and ten exposures exposures to get one final image. That’s because after each shot, I’d examine the image to ensure that everyone had kept moving and had fully “ghosted.“ If there were any “living” people in the image (that’s how I refer to non-ghosted people), then I took another shot, and another and another, until I got it right.
I did this because my Vision for the series only included ghosts, and not living people.
But when I exposed Auschwitz No. 4 and looked at the screen, I saw that one individual had stood perfectly still, leaving him as a living soul surrounded by ghosts. Normally, I would have discarded this image and created another, but something about it struck me, and I knew that I was going to keep it in the series.
This image holds a certain meaning for me: what I see is a visitor at the camp who is completely surrounded by, and completely unaware of, ghosts.
I love this image (it’s my second favorite in the series) and it’s the only one of the 15 that includes a “living“ person.
When I show my work, I rarely explain what an image means to me. I don’t want to color the viewers perception or interpretation with my views, rather I want to hear what the image means to them.
Sometimes when I show this image, I’ll ask a person to tell me what they see. I’m surprised at how many different interpretations I've heard. And what has surprised me the most, is that very few people interpret this image as I have.
What was your interpretation and did it differ from mime?