Photography studio (via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: This endorsement is part of a special edition that Hyperallergic published on the ongoing legal case to return the photos of Renty and Delia Taylor to their descendants.

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I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier. 

I am writing as a scholar of Holocaust history and memory, with particular emphasis on Holocaust photography, and as the author of four scholarly books on this topic.  Like photographs from the era of United States slavery, most photographs that have come down to us from the Holocaust were taken by perpetrators and not by victims. Like enslaved people, Holocaust victims lacked cameras and film, and they were mostly forbidden to document their own violation. In both historical circumstances, there were noted exceptions. Victims of Nazi persecution, like U.S. enslaved people, risked their lives to leave a record of the racialized prejudice and persecution to which they were subjected, and of the everyday lives they were able to lead despite the violence perpetrated on them.  But the visual record is mostly shaped by the lens and the gaze of those who wished to show them as inferior, and, indeed, as less than human, and who staged the images with this purpose in mind. 

In a context such as enslavement and genocidal racism, the act of photographing itself constituted a violation of the photographed subjects’ human rights. Enforced nudity, degenerate emaciated appearance — these are just some of the ways in which the purposes of dehumanization were accomplished. The photographed people were forced to pose and to perform their inferiority, and to participate in their violation by this act of posing. What is more, daguerreotypes are not snapshots; they require a significantly longer pose and thus embed an even greater humiliation. All these images are testaments to human rights violations and thus they pose difficult ethical questions in the present. Who owns them? Who has the right to show them? How are they to be seen and to be used? Does displaying them and using them constitute a collusion with the violence that gave rise to their existence? Does it repeat that violence? 

And yet, nonetheless, these are the images that remain, and these images have served descendants in an important way. Descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors, like descendants of U.S. slavery, rely on these flawed and distorted images for a thread of connection to their ancestors. Most often lacking other images and records, and even lacking precise information about their ancestors’ whereabouts, they have no choice but to turn to these perpetrator images. In the interviews I have conducted for my research, I have heard many descendants testify to their importance. They told me they often look at photographs of ghettos and concentration camps, even of executions, to find people who might look like them, and, lacking any others, they go as far as considering these images family photos. 

Importantly, however, images from the Holocaust tend now to be held in Jewish institutions, such as Yad Vashem, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, etc. These institutions care for these images in ways that take the dehumanization that produce them into account.  They monitor access carefully. One might say that they care for them in ways that family members would, given that familial links were often broken by this violent history. In contrast, the daguerreotypes claimed by Tamara Lanier are held by an institution that is itself implicated in the history of slavery. Continuing to hold these contested images is a continuation of this collusion, rather than an acknowledgement of and reparation for it. 

Artists from the generations of descendants have created works that use these perpetrator photographs, reframing them to allow viewers to see them in a new light—to attempt to repair the violence done. This is true of artists like Carrie Mae Weems and others, who have made stunning work on the basis of the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia. But art can only attempt to repair such a wrong symbolically, not actually. It can only point out the necessity of repair, as well as its impossibility. 

The case of these daguerreotypes is unique. With the genealogical connection fully established, the restitution of these images to the direct descendants of Renty Taylor and Delia can go some way toward repairing the human rights violation of their ancestors. Denying this request is a repetition of the violence. It is denying the humanity of the photographed persons one more time, by treating their images as objects that can be owned rather than honoring the continuing familial lives and the own continued life in memory of humans whose humanity was robbed when the images were taken.

Marianne Hirsch writes about the transmission of memories of violence across generations, combining feminist theory with memory studies in global perspective. Her recent books include The Generation of...