Seeking the “lingering presence” that exists in empty spaces that once contained human life, 37-year-old photographer Simon Watson recently traveled to Auschwitz, where, after months of correspondence with museum officials, he received authorization to photograph areas that had never been seen by the public.
Watson — a New York-based fine arts and Getty Images photographer who is also a contributor to W magazine, House & Garden and Travel + Leisure — took 400 pictures of hospital wards, experiment tables and prison cells. Now, 17 of the photographs will be featured in A Lingering Presence, an exhibit that runs until August 2 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, Poland. With photographs 6 feet by 7 1/2 feet, so large that they must be mounted on blocks instead of on walls, Watson invites the viewer inside a “hidden Auschwitz,” where dark, cramped spaces exist alongside light, airy rooms. The latter are so tranquil, so eerily detached from the atrocities associated with Auschwitz, that for a moment, the viewer thinks this could be anywhere. “It’s extraordinary,” Watson said, “that such horrible things happened in such brightly lit rooms.”