Remembering so as to forget

In Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye, Barbie Zelizer argues that World War II Holocaust photographs came, over time, to stand for war atrocity as such. Contemporary photographs of Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda consciously invoke familiar concentration camp images. “The recycling of photos from the past not only dulls our response to them,” Zelizer argues, “but potentially undermines the immediacy and depth of our response to contemporary instances of brutality, discounting them as somehow already known to us.” This is in part because the context in which atrocities are perceived is that of other atrocities, rather than the particular situation depicted. The original Holocaust photographs forced the viewer to bear witness; later such photographs have become a way of labeling, a superficial remembering serving a deeper forgetting. Zelizer’s focus is the photography of atrocity, the visual evidence of its having taken place. Making people witness past horrors, she reflects, “is becoming the acte imaginaire of the twentieth century.” The overuse of visual representations of atrocities “may create a situation in which much of the public is content not to see—looking so as not to see, and remembering so as to forget.”

—Marilyn B. Young, “An Incident at No Gun Ri,” in Crimes of War: Guilt and Denial in the Twentieth Century, Bartov, Grossmann, Nolan eds., (New York: The New Press, 2002), 242.

I took Marilyn Young’s “Vietnam and America” class at the University of Michigan and have remembered it not infrequently over the last forty years.

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