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Should We Be Colorizing Photographs From Auschwitz?

In the photograph, an adolescent girl wearing an oversized blue prison uniform stares emptily at the camera. Her tawny hair is cropped short; her face is gaunt. Her bottom lip is swollen, marked by a sliver of red blood.

Like many, I first saw the photograph of Czesława Kwoka, a Polish teenager who was killed in Auschwitz, when it went viral last year after it was shared online by the Auschwitz Museum.

A prison registration photograph, it was originally taken in black and white. It went viral when it was published in color.

Brazilian artist Marina Amaral colorized it for the museum’s Faces of Auschwitz project, which is colorizing intake photos as a way to bring them to life. The photos appear on the website along with biographical information about the subjects.

According to the website, Kwoka and her mother were both imprisoned for their Roman Catholic faith, which the Nazis considered to be a suspect, competing ideology to their own.

“When I first saw her, I could not forget her,” Amaral told the German news organization Deutsche Welle. “I wanted to humanize her and tell her story.” (Amaral did not answer questions from The Forward.)

I couldn’t forget the photograph either, but my reasons were different.

Czesława Kwoka

In The Original Black And White: A photo of Czesława Kwoka, a Polish teenager who was killed in Auschwitz, when it went viral last year after it was shared online by the Auschwitz Museum. Image by Auschwitz Memorial And Museum

The image nagged at me. There was no question it was compelling. Paired side by side with the time worn black and white version, Kwoka’s youth and vulnerability shined through in color. You could practically see the blood drying on her lip.

News reports on the viral image said that Kwoka’s injury was caused moments before the photo was taken, when she was hit by a guard.

But as gripping as I found the colorized picture, I had a gut-level disagreement with the premise of the Faces of Auschwitz project — that photographs from the past should be manipulated to appeal to people in the present.

I, of course, am not alone in my squeamishness about colorization. Photographic colorization is almost as old as photography itself. When the daguerreotype was invented in 1839, hand colorizing quickly followed as a way to make the photos look more realistic or to add an artistic element. Today, colorization is a digital process, though many colorizers still “paint” the photographs by manually adding color in layers to the black and white image.

Critics have long had quibbles about colorizing photographs or films to make them more “real.” In a 1988 essay, Roger Ebert argued against the colorization of the black and white film “Casablanca.”

“‘Colorization’ does not produce color movies,” he wrote, “but only sad and sickening travesties of black and white movies, their lighting destroyed, their atmospheres polluted, their moods altered almost at random by the addition of an artificial layer of coloring that is little more than legalized vandalism.”

To say the Faces of Auschwitz makes “sad and sickening travesties” of the intake photos would be taking it many steps too far. But I did see the project as distorting history. As a journalist, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of presenting a version of an image — rather than the image itself — to appeal to the sympathies of the viewer.

And yet, I sensed that I wasn’t seeing the whole picture, so to speak. Did the colorized photos, as the project claimed, actually succeed in humanizing the people in them?

I spoke with Larry Gross, the co-editor of two books about photographic ethics and a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Gross, who sees a lot to admire in the Faces of Auschwitz project, says it is impossible to put it in the same category as colorized works of black and white art.

If someone colorized the recent Academy Award Best Picture nominee “Roma,” a stunning black and white feature, he says, that would be a clear violation of the artist’s intent.

But there was no “artistic intent” with the black and white photos in the Faces of Auschwitz project. If the Nazis had the capacity to photograph inmates in color, they would have done so.

“The function of the photographs was not in any way humanistic,” he says of the intake photos. “It was control.”

According to the Faces of Auschwitz website, the Auschwitz Museum has some 38,916 registration photos in its archives. They were taken by fellow prisoners in order to help guards identify runaway prisoners.

The Nazis originally wanted to photograph all of the prisoners aside from those immediately sent to their deaths. But they abandoned the project because the inmates quickly became “unrecognizable” from the intake photos as life in the camp wore them down.

In January 1945 with the war turning against Germany, the Nazis ordered two of the photographers, Wilhelm Brasse and Bronisław Jureczek, to burn the photos. But the photographers managed to salvage many — those now in the Auschwitz Museum archive.

In Gross’s view, the colorization of the intake photos brings “another dimension which is not part of their original intent but kind of pulls some saving grace out of the dehumanizing control aspect of the photographs’ existence. To some extent it allows them to escape from that control.”

I saw his point. But what about my other concern, that it’s a failure of our collective imagination if we cannot see the subjects’ humanity in black and white, only in color?

“Something that is in black and white easily fades into a distant past,” he says. But colorized photos “look more like the photos we are used to,” easing the distance between the contemporary viewer and the subject.

But color in photography is not the “truth,” he adds. Color is subjective; we humans see it differently than insects do. In photography, color was at first a chemical process, keyed to skin tone — Caucasian skin tone — giving it an inherent racial bias. Digital photography is more sophisticated, but still “infinitely manipulable,” says Gross. What we think is real is just one of many possible versions of real.

And sometimes photo editors go in the opposite direction of the Faces of Auschwitz project, taking color away to make an image more palatable to the viewer. One of the most arresting photos from the 2004 Madrid train bombing included a severed limb. Several newspapers opted to print the picture in black and white, to draw attention away from the disturbing image.

In this case, “the color issue is that of distancing and obscuring,” says Gross.

In the Faces of Auschwitz project, the colorized photos are still a bit remote in Gross’s view. Published in faded tones rather than rich hues, they still convey the past, just in a way that is a little more relatable.

Dana Keller, a professional colorizer who uses Photoshop to paint black and white photos, says that his colorizations are meant to look realistic, but that doesn’t mean they should be considered a “replacement or a mask for the originals.”

“I believe that in most cases colorized images should be displayed/presented alongside the originals, so that the viewer can truly appreciate the actual historical record,” he told the Forward in an email.

I agree with Keller. The fact that the Faces of Auschwitz photos follow such a format — featuring black and white originals next to colorized ones — is one of the reasons I have come to appreciate the project. I now understand why for so many, the color version — the version that looks a little more like real life — is the one that packs an emotional punch.

And it gives me hope that the photos of humanitarian crises unfolding today are finding an audience because they are for the most part being published in the visual vernacular of our world — color.

May those images go viral as well.


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