The Art of the Past- John Dietrich
Memorials, museums, historic sites; all means of engaging the past on some level or to some degree. Are they also all means of passive learning to spark active participation? Memoria Abierta, Tuoi Sleng & Choeung Ek, the Berlin Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, & the hundreds of other examples of Holocaust Memorials and “Dark Tourism”, all function as an attempt to come to terms with the past, whether they have the ability to succeed or not is yet to be determined as history often recounts itself and rarely seems to learn from its’ mistakes. Their method of storytelling and their actual mission all naturally vary, and in their own right can be highly effective by eliciting a wide array of human response. What they hold in common is a function of being a public place of mourning or healing, perhaps embracing guilt or encouraging the discovery of reconciliation. Achieving all of that is another story, particularly at a site such as Tuoi Sleng and Choeung Ek, where because of its’ physical make up as well the Cambodian governments inability to truly come to terms with who is to blame these atrocities and how justice can be obtained, reconciliation has not begun.
I recently began work on my Masters Thesis, which ironically delves into the role of photography. When is it historic document, artistic expression, or activist tool, or can it function as all three at the same time? I am particularly studying the work of Dorothea Lange (As well as writing a musical about her life), who was considered probably the first female documentary photographer. She was hired by the government and worked under a division called the FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographing migrant workers fleeing the Plains during the depression and the great drought of the dust bowl years. Her basic objective was to document their plight in order for the government to find means of assisting them. Once migrant government camps could be established, she also documented the success of these camps, proving to the American people that something was being done by the government to address this travesty, or in other cases to show their failure, in order to bring to public attention the severity of the problem at hand. She was also the main photographer for the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Again, the government wanted her to illustrate that the Japanese-Americans were being well taken care of in these camps, which was often not the case. When she insisted on showing the truth, her film was often confiscated and images censored. A book was just published this Fall titled “Impounded”, which shows all of Dorothea’s images from the Internment camps, censored and uncensored. Dorothea, had the ability as a photographer to show the perseverance, pride and dignity of her subjects, always invoking a sense of hope and not despair, despite their often-desperate situations. Because of the true beauty of the human spirit which can often be found in her work, and despite the tragic element that underlines their story, the richness of the moment captured can be tremendously inspiring. So here is a documented history of some of the most catastrophic moments in American culture and yet the role they play or reactions they generate can be infinite. As noted in the Sevcenko article, the Japanese American National Museum held a town meeting with former internees of Manzanar, where Dorothea did a majority of her photographing, to engage a discussion of maintaining democracy and national security. While in actuality, many photographs from these camps can be found in museum collections across the country and sold in galleries, partly due to their aesthetic beauty and emotional impact. The same notion is conveyed in the Tuoi Sleng/Choeung article regarding the selection of 100 images; mug shots of genocide victims, to be placed on exhibit at MOMA and later sold in fine art galleries. Because of the complete lack of information regarding each individual in the photographs, only a short description behind the entire collections history and function could be given. As sited in the article, “The pictures do not just belong to or reside in history but help decide it according to our own imagination or invention. Once again the use of these images encompasses a series of roles, and takes on numerous responsibilities. Does it make the photograph less instrumental or functional when placed in an artistic environment or given an implied definition of being “art”?