Academic journal article Afterimage

Unconscionable or Communicable: The Transference of Holocaust Photography in Cyber Space

Academic journal article Afterimage

Unconscionable or Communicable: The Transference of Holocaust Photography in Cyber Space

Article excerpt

Holocaust on Your Plate, a campaign launched in 2003 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is a controversial example of the exploitation of significant historical images. PETA's use of concentration camp photographs to mirror the current conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses has attracted negative attention from the Anti-Defamation League, the Canadian Jewish Congress and many Holocaust survivors, organizations, writers, artists and museums. Since this promotion began, the following statement by Manuel Prutschi, the national director of community relations for the Canadian Jewish Congress has pervaded the debate: "to equate what is truly one of the most monumental crimes in the history of mankind to the abusive treatment of animals is totally unconscionable." Detractors' moral and ethical criticism has not challenged PETA's overall crusade against cruelty to animals but it has targeted their analogous presentation using Holocaust imagery. Prutschi's sentiments reflect the convictions of many who view the Holocaust as an incomparable circumstance in history for which there are boundaries to its discourse and its imagery. To transgress these boundaries, to jeopardize the integrity of Holocaust remembrance is, in the opinion of many, "unconscionable."

In displaying side-by-side photographic messages on billboards, in exhibitions (now touring Europe) and on the Internet, PETA's objective is to heighten public awareness of animal cruelty and to inspire action for its cause. However, the use of these momentous images of human suffering alongside those of chicken coops and slaughtered farm yard animals divisively capitalizes on viewers' recognition of and response to the atrocious conditions that humans suffered and that are documented within these historical photographs. In its presentation of the ostensibly barbarous conditions during the Holocaust, the exhibition utilizes the public's response to these well-recognized photographs in order to enhance their analogy that the atrocious conditions imposed on humans by humans during WWII are equal to the treatment of animals by the food industry today. Supporters of PETA's campaign justify their juxtaposition of these images; yet, the opposition holds that the analogy is grossly over simplified and that the photo ensemble is exemplary of the way in which such usage compromises the integrity of original photos and what they represent. As regards the level of exploitation that these images have reached via several forms of traditional media and new media, this controversial campaign calls attention to the degree to which an image's integrity can be disseminated in the face of even the most ethical considerations of our time. It forces us to consider our relationship to images that are not only deliberately arranged and placed out of context to voice alternate messages, this controversy asks us to consider what becomes of such images once they enter the digital realm and are unleashed into cyber space.

PETA's use of Holocaust images alone is not unprecedented. For nearly sixty years, the public has viewed photos of the Holocaust in incongruous associations through a variety of media. Since the end of World War II, images of Holocaust atrocities have had an important part in what is termed, bearing witness. As accurate records of an event that affected an entire people and the world, their role is to authenticate personal and historical experiences and provide access to this event for following generations. Under the auspice of bearing witness to the Holocaust, the obligation of survivors, groups, and institutions such as the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is to preserve the integrity of Holocaust discourse and its artifacts. Subsequently, Holocaust images hold the position of both memorializing the past and having import for the future. However, media's and institutions' incessant display of the same photographs of Nazi death camps or heaped corpses has made an impression that causes the images to be seen as icons of terror and atrocity rather than as specific records of an authentic moment in time. …

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