Images act as information, and information are what the Nazis and Khmer Rouge sought to create throughout their brutal genocides of the 20th century. Portraits of 1000’s of males, ladies and kids taken shortly earlier than their deaths is a savage reminder of the photograph as a weapon, however mockingly additionally illustrates how the images got here again to hang-out the perpetrators as proof of their crimes in opposition to humanity.

Whereas the character of those images is similar, the tales of the photographers behind these photos may hardly be extra totally different.


Because the Soviets superior by Poland in late 1944, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler ordered the dismantling of the gasoline chambers at Auschwitz and some other document of the mass extermination that killed estimated 1.1 million individuals. Among the many information, images of the boys, ladies and kids earlier than their deaths taken by a staff of photographers led by Wilhelm Brasse.

14-year previous Czeslawa Kwaka. Born August 15, 1928. Arrived December 13, 1942. Died March 12, 1943. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Brasse skilled as a portrait photographer within the southwestern metropolis of Katowice. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Brasse, the son of a German father and Polish mom, was given the prospect to hitch the Nazis. He refused and tried to flee the nation, however was detained close to the Hungarian border. After being despatched to Auschwitz in 1941 as a political prisoner, Brasse was summoned by the Political Division for what he thought could be a loss of life sentence. As an alternative, SS Officer Berhard Walter questioned Brasse about his data of images. His professional technical data and proficiency in German result in his appointment as the top of photograph division of the Erkennungsdienst (the identification unit) as part of the Nazi’s meticulous document conserving obsession.

43-year previous Waclaw Jacyna. Born August 7, 1897. Arrived April 22, 1941. Died June 13, 1942. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Anna Dobrowolska’s The Auschwitz Photographer comprises interviews with members of the Erkennugsdienst who recounted the extremely systematic work of photographing tens of 1000’s of prisoners.

From Janusz Karwacki:

“The digicam had a Zeiss lens with 1.5 velocity and focal lengths of 15 and 18 centimeters, arrange for mug photographs. We had additionally two giant spherical reflectors. They used to 500W bulbs lined with particular matte screens. Two most important lights had been used for mug photographs. It was very harsh gentle.

“For portraits we used an extra smaller gentle to reinforce the face. The background was a curtain stretched on a body and arrange in a single spot. The portrait footage used a grey backdrop, the mug photographs a lighter coloured one.”

From Jan Szemebek:

“Prisoners would are available in one after the other and sit on the chair. Truly, it was not a chair however a particular cuboid with a crescent formed assist mounted to the again. The prisoners would lean their heads on that assist to stay nonetheless. The crescent was mounted at about occiput stage. It maintained a hard and fast distance between the face and the digicam and thus made work extra environment friendly.

“…There have been three takes: the primary one – prisoner carrying a cap and in three quarter view; the second – with naked head and full face. For the third one the entire setup with the prisoner on the chair was turned ninety levels and we shot his profile.”

Brasse estimates that he took 40,000 – 50,000 images at Auschwitz. Along with the mugshots of prisoners, Brasse additionally took portraits of varied officers in addition to documentary photos of Josef Mengele’s victims.

When ordered to destroy all the pictures by Walter, Brasse and darkroom technician Bronislaw Jureczek ingeniously labored to avoid wasting negatives. In a 2005 Guardian interview, Jureczek stated, “We put moist photographic paper after which images and negatives right into a tile range in such giant numbers as to dam the exhaust outlet. This ensured that after we set fireplace to the supplies within the range solely the images and negatives close to the range door could be consumed, and that the fireplace would die out as a result of lack of air.” They succeeded in saving over 39,000 photos which have since been cataloged and digitized.

After the conflict, Brasse tried to return to a profession in images, however the spectre of his experiences made it unimaginable for him to proceed. In 2005, Poland’s TVP1 launched an acclaimed documentary entitled “The Portraitist” that chronicled Brasse’s life. Brasse handed away on the age of 94 in 2012, celebrated as a hero for risking his life to save lots of 1000’s of photos that stay the one visible proof of those that had been killed.


Fifty-four hundred miles away and thirty years later, Pol Pot reigned over Cambodia’s Killing Fields – a state-sponsored genocide to purge politicians, professionals and intellectuals, which resulted within the loss of life of an estimated 25% of the inhabitants in a 4 yr interval of terror.

In 1976, the communist Khmer Rouge took over the Tuol Svay Pray highschool in Phnom Penh. Innocuously renamed “S-21,” the navy transformed lecture rooms into prisons and torture chambers. An estimated 14,000 individuals handed by S-21’s doorways and solely seven survived.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As part of the consumption process, a 16-year previous Chinese language-trained photographer, Nhem En, was tasked with taking portraits not too dissimilar from Brasse. In a 1997 interview with Doug Niven, Ehn defined:

“We had 35mm, 6x6cm and 16mm cameras, which had been taken from Phnom Penh photograph retailers. The 6x6cm movie — highly regarded on the time — was the best to seek out, and easy to course of. We additionally discovered Japanese-manufactured chemical substances: borax, kenon, bolsovik, and carbonate from the retailers. I discovered methods to combine the chemical substances from the guide I used to be given in China, to which I added translated notes/directions in Khmer.

“I had plenty of cameras, however my favourite was [a] Yashica, made in Japan. I discovered methods to measure the sunshine whereas I used to be in China, and to make the right publicity.”

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

In a 2014 interview with Michael Klinkhamer, En recounted:

“Every prisoner was given a quantity and was registered on a listing. I advised them to look straight into the digicam. No head turning or wanting away, or the image wouldn’t be appropriate. The prisoners usually had kids with them. I additionally took footage of their kids.

“I used a number of cameras – the Rolleicord and Yashica …. and in addition a Canon. I used flash, and labored with a everlasting set-up.”

Technically talking, En’s images profit from sooner movie and higher gear. The model and really feel of a few of these portraits is hauntingly modern, however the data of what grew to become of the themes considerably alters aesthetic concerns. They’re loss of life images taken by a person with little regret over his function at S-21, usually expressing satisfaction in what he did.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

When queried by Klinkhamer about what he would say if he would say to the victims, he tersely responded, “I’ve nothing to say to them. In these days we needed to obey our leaders and observe their orders.”

“I had my job, and I needed to handle my job,” he advised the New York Occasions in 2007. “I needed to clear, develop and dry the images alone and take them to Duch by my very own hand. I couldn’t make a mistake. If one of many footage was misplaced I might be killed.”


Nevertheless seductive it could be to decipher variations within the expressions of the deceased primarily based on the photographer, the train is specious. The content material of the images is similar – systematically created photos of individuals moments from ache and loss of life – however the context across the creation of the pictures brings nuance to our understanding of images and its function in our humanity. We’re chargeable for how and after we push the shutter. We’re chargeable for how we select to publish. And we’re chargeable for offering context that brings which means and dignity to our topics. Each photographers have images, however just one has his morality.