Few places on Earth have a name as well known and so utterly abhorred as Auschwitz. It’s reputation as the figurehead of just how far humanity can fall is well earned, evidence shows upwards of 1.5 million people being slaughtered within it’s walls by the Nazi’s between 1940 – 1945, around 2/3rd’s of that number being Jewish.
Poles, Romani and Soviet Prisoners also suffered the same fate within the walls of Auschwitz and Birkenau with very few of any group surviving incarceration in the concentration camps.
Situated in Southern Poland, Auschwitz – Birkenau lies in the town of Oświęcim.
The Soviet Red Army finally reached and liberated Auschwitz on the 27th January 1945. 7500 people were found alive alongside over 600 corpses, the remaining population of the extermination camp having been either put to death in the face of the Soviet advance or led on a death march to Nazi camps situated elsewhere.
Prior to the Soviet push the SS had ordered the destruction of documents, experiments, personal effects and any evidence of what atrocities were being carried out within the camps. Mass graves were removed, remains burned and buildings leveled as fast as possible to cover up what had been done.
One can only speculate as to what vile acts were carried out without knowledge, but based on what was found still standing and evidence that remained intact the horrors must have been even more terrible than I can imagine.
not my place
I could easily write about the histories of Auschwitz and the awful crimes carried out there for days on end, but this is something the world already knows and which has been described far more coherently and completely than I am capable of doing by many other sources far more eloquently than I ever will.
My creative works and written ramblings have always been about me and how I see and feel the world around me, so I will leave the concise historical endeavors to those more qualified on the subject and instead express my own experience here for you to read and visualise through my imagery.
I would apologise for the large sections of text on this page, it is not my usual way of working after all, but this is one experience that I do not feel can be expressed with images alone and I have been meaning to get a little more back into writing for years now. I hope you enjoy it or at least learn a little something from it even if you don’t. I won’t attempt to apologise for my potty mouth either as those of you reading this likely are fully aware that I don’t consider it to be worth writing down if it does not contain at least a dozen profanities.
Gateway to darkness
We had a struggle booking to visit the site at all initially as it was fully booked on pretty much every day we had looked, we did however manage to find an afternoon slot in early January 2019 to go and explore so booked it in.
Arriving at Auschwitz was a strange experience, I was already feeling apprehensive long before we got there and seeing it appear in the snow across a park felt like something quite profound, it is in effect one of the largest mass graves in the world and I was there as a fucking tourist.
First thing I noticed was that the entrance ran through a massive red-brick structure which actually looked rather elegant and appealing, though the second your eyes stray onto the barbwire fences and towers everywhere that illusion is shattered instantly. Despite my love of this style of brickwork construction Auschwitz has a air about it that can turn just about any object into something sinister I was to learn, repeatedly.
Passing through the entrance leads you into an open space surrounded by military style barrack houses, gun towers and larger constructions that appeared to be warehouses or factories of some sort. Being minus 16 degrees C on the day, icicles were hanging from many windows and rooftops and snow was spread everywhere.
We had actually hoped for some months to experience the concentration camp in snowy conditions or particularly bad weather in order to gain a more honest rendition of just how bastardly awful conditions there must have been, I was wrapped up in layers of modern clothing and still cold to the bone, I cannot even imagine how it must have been for those held in the camp, wearing nothing but pyjamas through winters vastly harsher than the glimpse of it I had.
arbeit macht frei
“Work Sets You Free” is the greeting on the main entrance to the concentration camp itself, almost literally forged in blood by prisoners of the camp. Worked to death, tortured, exterminated en-masse, infected with disease, starved or experimented on in cruel and vile ways by the Nazi scum in charge of these hellish places and their SS comrades, who despite the efforts of countless movies to depict them as evil souls, never quite tell the full horror that infested these awful examples of humanity.
The multiple layers of barbed, electric fencing that crisscross the complex seem to emerge from this arched gate and the guard posts weave themselves through the fencing. I decided to follow the perimeter of the camp around as far as I could to get some idea of just how menacing it was.
Being unable to enter the site until 2pm meant I only had a maximum of two hours of workable light to shoot with so I decided that my best course of action would be to shoot as much as possible whilst the light lasted and then visit the exhibits once the light failed me.
The fencing around Auschwitz is indeed a grim affair, dual layers of barbed electric wire split up every section of the complex, menacing warning signs are placed intermittently around the area and guard towers overlook every passage and segment of the layout, lamps every few meters kept the fences illuminated.
Even 80 years later the fencing and towers are a stunning message of oppression, the fencing itself seems more designed to snare and injure people than to kill them during an escape attempt, no doubt so the SS could subject any attempted escapees to torture and make examples of them to deter others.
None the less, brave, cunning souls did escape from these concentration camps, around 200 survived against nearly 500 being recaptured, the majority of escapees were reportedly Poles, all escapees were heroes.
the architecture of hate
Looking beyond the brutal fencing and guard towers, Auschwitz contains a large number of aesthetically pleasing buildings, the red brickwork and titled roofs are something that I would normally be pleased to see, the textures are lovely and the shades and tones capture the light nicely.
These attractive buildings contain rooms full of severed human hair taken from those killed barbarically mere minutes later, prosthetic limbs taken from victims of the gas chamber killings before their remains were burned, glasses and spectacles from thousands of people who no longer had a need for them after being tortured to death, the clothes of children starved or beaten to death in front of their parents.
Other buildings contain the pseudo-dungeon of Josef Mengele “The Angel of Death” and professor Carl Clauberg who were arguably some of the most evil humans to walk the earth, having spent their time in Auschwitz performing homicidal and brutal experiments on the captives for their own personal pleasure. Twins and Dwarfs were their personal playthings and children were hung en-masse in 1945 in order to clear the camp of evidence of such atrocity occurring.
Looking at these buildings from a creative perspective of frames, shadows and composition did nothing to stop the rising nausea in my stomach nor anything to stop the fist closing around my heart and twisting, never in my life have I felt so physically sick from looking at what is, to all intents and purposes, just a fucking building.
designed for murder
One of the things that rattled me the most walking around the camp fencing and between the buildings was the thought that people had actually sat down at a meeting and drawn up plans to build a murder camp. Human beings got together and decided to construct an entire complex of buildings to enable the efficient murder of 1.5 million men, women and children. Think about that. I cannot even get the barest conception of how human beings could possibly sink so low into the slime to even consider such actions, but they did, and they achieved it in more individual camps that I ever could have imagined.
Every part of Auschwitz has been designed from the ground up to maximise the suffering of other people, enable the mass murder of thousands of people at a time and the disposal of their remains to be carried out with as little effort as possible, all the while ensuring those carrying out these sickening acts of hate are as comfortable, safe and well looked after as possible.
What hit me even harder in my limited time was that Auschwitz is the fucking posh section, the area where prisoners were given the best treatment and warmest cells, concrete walls to protect them from the elements and roofs over their heads to keep them warmer before they were dragged off to the courtyard and shot in the back against the wall, injected with Noma causing bacteria or simply hung and autopsied to compare notes.
Despite what a brutal and harrowing place it was (and is still) Auschwitz is not even a 5th of the size of Birkenau, situated barely a mile away. Light was however slipping away fast and I had a huge struggle to try and ensure I visited as many exhibits as possible before the camp closed for the day.
the gas chamber
The final part of Auschwitz I visited was the infamous gas chamber, I had already walked past it several times without seeing the sign or realising that such an inconspicuous little building could have possibly been the icon of so much manifest hatred, death and tragedy, I had switched my camera off already before stepping into it without a second thought.
Some areas of the camp are clearly marked as points of no photography, I will generally adhere to such rules without a thought simply because someone asked it of me for their own reasons, and I have little reason or desire to disrespect that in a site of so many valid reasons things should never have happened. Even accidentally taking a picture of the wall by the prison block, against which thousands were executed felt a little wrong to me, but I decided to edit it and include it regardless as it had already been shot.
I did not see if there was a photography embargo in the gas chamber, I did not care, this was not something I wanted to record, so I did not even look for a sign indicating either way.
The building itself is small, short and long with a chimney poking out of it, it looks more like a bunker or utility structure to me than a murder chamber of such notoriety, it’s whole design was really just another piece of Nazi efficiency.
Prisoners arrived by train, were told to strip naked and prepare to be de-louced in the showers communally, marched through a narrow tiny, low door and to the right, into a low roofed room fitted with fake shower heads. 2000 men, women and children were crammed into this “shower room” at a time, the doors were barred and locked.
Zyklon B pellets were dropped into the room through vents in the roof.
The claw marks of hundreds of thousands of human beings line these walls, their desperation to escape forever marking the place for what it was. At peak operation, 20,000 human beings were murdered a day in these gas chambers, their gold teeth stripped from their heads and their bodies thrown into the furnaces in the next room by the dozen, like plague riddled cattle.
Back for birkenau
Limited time, limited light and freezing weather conditions made for both an intense and frustratingly limited trip overall, my visit to the Birkenau section of the concentration camp was carried out with a 15 minute window for the return bus and in complete darkness, as you can see from the single image I did capture, it was not suitable for photography and even if I had a tripod with me, time was up.
Seeing Birkenau however left me utterly shocked, the size of the camp was at least 5 times greater than that of Auschwitz, the buildings wooden and bereft of basic features and it is believed that there were a further three gas chambers situated here that were destroyed mere days before the Red Army liberated the camp.
I have promised to return to the camps, hopefully this year to further experience and document them, and until then (and most likely long after) I will likely still be pondering just how awful humanity can be to itself.
Whilst it is not a pleasant experience, this visit has been hugely eye opening in dozens of ways, it has left me shaken and incredibly dazed at the staggering brutality of what occurred and the only good I can see in it is that it acts as a potent warning against fascism, hate and bigotry.
I hope that we never see it’s like again.
Full collections of images are displayed in galleries below, yes, including the high dynamic range ones you hate so much, and limited edition prints will be added to our shop, a portion of the profits from each sale will be donated to an anti-fascist organisation of my choosing. Whilst I briefly debated the pro’s and con’s of selling prints of such a nature the desire to document more such places and keep a roof over my head won over.
Links to interesting articles are also included below as well as links to the print shop.
Thank you for reading and viewing this long and poorly written journal, it lacks my usual humor, but the subject lacks any of the light I normally find in most topics.