Online Holocaust Testimony: Questions of Ethics, Pathos, and Media Specificity

Curator's Note

Both of these two clips can be found on the website of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, originally founded as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation by Steven Spielberg in 1994.  They are but two of the over 52,000 audiovisual testimonies of Holocaust survivors, liberators, and other witnesses, that have been collected and digitized by the Shoah Foundation on its Visual History Archive (or VHA) and made available through an Internet2 connection at subscribing universities and institutions across the world.  The first testimonial excerpt of Max Durst is one of several alternating short video clips of interviews that are screened on the Shoah Foundation homepage in an introductory media window placed along side a mosaic of still images of other witnesses.  The second segment with Erna Anolik appears on the website’s online testimony viewer displaying various other clips that illustrate moments in the pre-war, wartime, and postwar periods under such topics as “Pre-War,” “Ghettos,” “Camps,” and “Liberation.”


Considering the immense memorial potentiality of the VHA, one must ask how such an enormous collection of testimonies will be activated beyond the confines of the archive and circulate across multiple distribution platforms and reception contexts.  For the purposes of this post, I focus my attention on these two online clips as they represent informative examples of the Shoah Foundation’s institutional authorship of testimony brushing up against the personal textures of survivors’ recollections.  Turning to the interview segment with Max Durst, it is striking for its compact emotional intensity.  It encompasses Max’s experience of liberation, but is short on historical detail, instead focusing our attention on the affective dimensions of his remembrance.  The topic of liberation here provides the conceptual and historical framework for anchoring the encounter with the overflow of Max’s traumatic memory.  At the same time, in keeping with the established methodology of the Shoah Foundation interview and videography practices, the camera remains fixed in the foundation’s standardized medium close-up framing rather than moving in for a tighter close-up of Max’s face or pulling back to more fully reveal the range of his intense hand and arm gestures.  Thus, the emotive core of the survivor’s testimony here is documented but ultimately counterbalanced by the more sober, objective intentions and representational strategies of the VHA.


The second excerpt from the testimony of Erna Anolik is placed on the website under the topic heading of “Camps” and features her description of having been processed upon arrival at Auschwitz.  The use of the clip speaks to many of the same issues as those associated with Max’s testimony, though it also introduces a more conspicuous form of institutional intervention as we see an elliptical dissolve midway through the clip.  The dissolve bridges Erna’s harrowing description of her arrival at Auschwitz with her recollection of her daily routine in the camp, thus bypassing the events that fall in between and pulling away at a particularly difficult emotional juncture in her interview.  


What is lost in this transition?  Do the protracted, dialogic, and less dramatic processes that characterize the labor of testimony of survivors like Erna and Max get obscured by the digital instrumentalization of their stories?  These questions become more pressing when we consider the fact that while the Shoah Foundation does not edit any testimony as it is preserved in its original form housed within the VHA, it does maintain copyright on the interview and can thus edit and combine the material for subsequent use outside that context.  The clips in question represent but two examples of how that copyright is exercised.  Therefore, to extend some of Dan’s opening curator questions for this week, I would like to ask:  How do you we consider documentary authorship both in regards to the original video interviews with witnesses and with their subsequent edited versions?  As archives such as the VHA aim to make these sources digitally accessible, particularly through the use of comprehensive indexing and cataloging structures, what exactly is being mapped along the way?  How, if at all, is the interrelationship between affect and cognition being preserved?




My reponse to these two clips comes close to the one I wrote to Heidi Rae Cooley's text, and concerns aspects of embedded information within the material itself. Stored information in the image that could be summoned up through scrolling or clicking on the image could work like a hidden digital watermark. We would be able to find out a host of details about the material: to what index category the footage belongs; not only the date of the interview but how far into the interview this particular sequence comes from (not unimportant if we consider the way affect and memory works, and, furthermore, how the choice of words for describing the events could be seen to be established earlier, in relation to another event). These embedded annotations, or photonotes, could also link to similar material in other categories in the archive by such fleeting cues such as the mentioning of a name, a place or a date.


I'm not sure how helpful my short comments are, but your project on these particular archives, Noah, seem to eclipse, or rather superimpose, many of my own concerns about the archive in general. Looking forward to reading more about it.

I'm curious about the composition & framing of the interviews.  The two we see here are exceedingly similar--on the order of the template (& all the suppressions & coercions that implies).  Are the others likewise composed?  If so, how does the work of this standardization of form function to contain the testimonies offered?  In what ways does it possibly define/restrict the very condition of the offering (not to mention the hearing of the offering)?  I wonder if the normalizing function of the composition performs a sort of abstracting upon the testimonies, thereby enabling a sort of table [database] of equivalences.  What happens to testimony when it is deterritorialized thusly & rendered exchangeable?  Then, what about the presence of the out-of-frame, the offscreen which so heavily governs (& infuses) the onscreen--not merely the interviewer & his/her scripted questions, but also the institution (USC), the corporation (Spielberg) and law (copyright)?  Where does the scholar-researcher come into play?

Heidi Rae Cooley Editor, Journal of Visual Culture Assistant Professor of New Media Studies University of South Carolina

Very interesting choice of clips.


I've written elsewhere about research being carried out by cognitive scientists (with the help of videogame designers and computer scientists) who are developing virtual humans for use in training and tactical simulations. These researchers are working on extending the notion of designing problem solving systems (branching tree structures keyed to motivation) for generating emotional content in onscreen representations of humans. One aspect of their research that I have found very interesting - and very troublesome - is their semiotic approach (my phrase, not theirs) to understanding ways in which affect can be coded into, or onto, their characters. There basic notion, quite simplified, is that the appearance of affect is sufficient for actual humans (those engaging in conversation with another actual human or with a virtual human onscreen) to believe that emotional content (the internal processes of memory and feeling) stands behind the outward emotional display. This all stems from work being done in brain research on emotions and cognition and the mapping of brain area specialities (which many of us non-cognitive science types read about in the popular science press).


What these Shoah Foundation clips bring to mind is just this sort of imagining (isn't that what science does for those of us not intimate with the raw research data?) of how we interact as human conversants in relation to trauma? We respond intuitively to the tears, the choked back words, the pauses, but, other than dismissing the cognitive science research out of hand (which some of us want to do), how do/can representations of trauma-witnessing speak back to proponents of the virtual human (or the posthuman for that)? What weight do these emotional contents have? Are they merely the spur to facial and gestural representations that are read as deeply felt emotions? There are many ethical questions that grow from conceptualizing the human in this way.


Just some thoughts that spin in different directions from what has already been said.


Dan Leopard, Saint Mary's College of California

Catherine Summerhayes PhD. Lecturer in Film Studies and New Media Arts Australian National University

These clips are of interviews, we don't see the interviewer, we don't see the impact of what the people are saying on the interviewer and we don't hear the questions, at least in these clips.  So in Bill Nichols' sense, they are 'masked' interviews: we don't really know the context in which these people are speaking except the overall horrifying one.  In a way, the very topic they are speaking on is so horrific that perhaps they are in danger of being over universalised (if this is a valid concept!). So the ethics in the filmmed situation are complex, even before the interviews were placed on the web. And yet, the interviews themselves and their placement on the web constitute a tremendously admirable sharing of information. I think I am simply saying that the original filmming of these interviews and their incorporation into a data base of any kind, presents problems that beset all documentary makers: what to include, what to leave out, how to frame the subjects, and finally the problem of wondering about in ethnographic filmmaker and theorist David MacDougall's words'Whose story is it'? There are a number of ways that the very insitutional power of documentary making and the interview can be mitigated - the main one being consultation with the subject. So let's hope this happened. And what I have described as cinema's 6th look, the subject's look towards an unseen interviewer, represents a warm and compassionate experience for both participants as seems possible from the intimacy elicited from the interview itself.

This collection of clips is a very touching and real way to present the stories of these interviewees. The focus is solely on the people being interviewed and their responses. The interviewer and their questions are not mentioned giving the interview a lack of background. In consent with Catherine, there seems to be a connection that is being left out. When conducting or participating in an interview, a certain bond is made that contributes to the tone of the overall interview. Without this factor I feel that the focus is evident on the participant but that there is a loss of complete understanding. Overall the movie was very well done but I must agree with Catherine in that I would have liked to see the uncut version.

Natalie Aldajani Saint Mary's College of California

This is a very interesting contrast of clips and I definitely notice the difference of emotion extracted from the audience with the use of editing. I think with interviews with this much personal attachment to it should use limited or, even better, no editing. Raw emotion is what draws the crowd to documentaries, not editing, or else they would not be documentaries.

In the second clip, when the woman was crying, the dissolve was a bad segue and did not properly connect the before and after state of the interviewee. A fade to black would have been better but a dissolve seems like the editor is trying to show off his “editing skills” which can be done on a PowerPoint presentation.

The first clip was very well done because with the camera station in a medium close-up, the viewer is subconsciously focusing their attention on the interviewee, reacting to their emotion. There could have been room for small changes in the way the camera work and zooming in and out but I believe it was much better than the first one.

Overall, I think that editing for documentaries should be minimal unless the editor is attempting to dramatize an action scene or depicting a moment they are attempting to communicate with the audience. For interviews, the camera should be positioned in one position with one set frame in order to really hear their words and feel their emotion.

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