For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide • Landscape • Memory
by Simon James
Simon Norfolk earns his living as a photo-journalist. He was born in Lagos in 1963, brought up in Manchester and studied philosophy and sociology at Bristol University. The intended next step had been a move on to a PhD. However, whilestudying at Bristol he was introduced by his tutor to the work of a number of campaigning photographers, notably Joseph Koudelka's book on The Gypsies, and Network photographer Mike Gold-water's Fighting The Famine. He says he was knocked over by Will Guy's introduction to The Gypsies and began to think of photography as a sort of applied sociology. Feeling he might make more difference in the world working as a photographer than he would have done as a sociologist, he applied for a place in David Hum's course in Documentary Photography at Newport. On finishing the Newport course he moved to London and began working as a magazine photographer: firstly on Living Marxism, later moving to the Select picture agency who distributed his pictures to Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The Independent.
Politically Norfolk has always stood to the left of center, although more generally across Europe the 19805 were a period ofincreased acceptability and ascendance for right wing political parties. In France, Jean-Marie Le Penn controlled a considerable movement while in the UK far right parties achieved their first elected local counselor since the war and on several occasions generated enough support to be allowed televised party political broadcasts. Personally Norfolk was alarmed by these trends and, as a working photographer covering events associated with the rise of the British new right, found himself increasingly angered by the things he witnessed.
Ironically his personal journey began out of contact with two diametrically opposed individuals who attended these meetings: revisionist historian and British National Party philosopher David Riving, who denies the Nazis committed the deliberate mass extermination of European Jewry, and Leon Greenman, an elderly Jewish man prominent in counter-demonstrations outside. Greenman, a survivor of the death camps who wore a badge saying "I was there," was sent to Auschwitz from Holland with his wife and two and a half year old son. The last Greenman ever saw of his family was on the death camp arrivals ramp. They were sent straight to the gas chamber while he was selected for slave labor and, against near insurmountable odds, survived the war.
Norfolk became increasingly concerned for the way in which this comparatively recent history was misrepresented and mythologised. He began researching the subject personally through records held in the Wiener Library in London and in 1994 decided to visit Auschwitz for himself. On arriving at the camp he began making photographs in his, to that point, usual 35 mm documentary style. However, he worried that the results would differ little from the many thousands of reportage images made there since its liberation in 1945. Norfolk was conscious of the manner in which humanist documentary practice prioritizes the experience, reaction or feelings of the witness above the issue, event or subject under discussion, as well as photographing the diverse groups visiting the site and their reactions to it. He also made a series of quieter, more contemplative, black-and-white images of the landscape of the camp with a recently acquired Mamiya 6 camera and tripod. On returning to England and reviewing the results he concluded that the stiller, landscape imagery, devoid of current visitors and their reactions, bore more telling witness to the immensity and horror of the crime committed at Auschwitz.
For most of it I have no words does not confine itself, however, to the mass exterminations of Nazi Germany. For as recent years have evidenced, despite their wholesale industrialization of the process, the Nazis neither invented nor held the monopoly on genocide. Similarly western revisionist historians may in this period be the principal orators of denial but they neither invented the concept nor hold title to it. On his return from Auschwitz, Norfolk continued to work as a photo-journalist and his reading broadened to encompass other acts of genocide that had taken place this century. In April 1994 the Hutu government and people of Rwanda turned on its Tutsi minority in an orchestrated atrocity of medieval proportion. Some months later when Norfolk visited the country an estimated 700,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus lay dead, their remains in some areas still on open view. It is here that Norfolk's imagery begins to regard the nature of the act of genocide, one defining element of which is its commitment and thoroughness. In his moving essay at the beginning of For most of it I have no words Michael Ignatieff adopts the language of the picturesque to reinforce the fact that in the eyes of the perpetrators of genocide their act is one of sublime purification. Norfolk's images of Rwanda verify no stone of that society was left unturned in the bloodletting: classroom, clinic and church were all purified of the perceived taint of the Tutsi.
The sites of atrocity presented in For most of it I have no words are worldwide but neither exhibition nor book claims to be inclusive. Increasingly to Norfolk the notion of Memory, the final word in the title sequence, became of paramount importance. Traditional documentary styles attempt to tell their viewers what to think. Perhaps conscious of the amount written on this subject, Norfolk by contrast solely offers images of the remains or referents still evident at the places where the events took place. Although primarily motivated by an immense and very personal hatred for those who commit these crimes he chooses not to present an essay of his own and restricts himself to brief captions at the end of the book. The title is not his statement but the final words of wartime American correspondent Edward R. Murrow's radio despatch from Buchenwald concentration camp.
In the early part of the sequence, evidence of the atrocities and the charred remains of the victims lie openly on display. As the series progresses, however, obvious indicators become less visible until, towards the end of the series, all that is left are bleak, open, empty spaces. These images allude to the ephemeral nature of memory itself, while serving equally as metaphors for the sheer size of the crimes committed within their confines. With the sole exception of the Vietnamese boys, born after the conflict yet each day suffering its consequences, the living are deliberately restricted from the pages of this elegy. Little more than casual attention is given to the methodologies adopted by the perpetrators of genocide. That detail that is offered serves as a reminder of how little technology is in fact required to commit mass murder. In presenting the imagery without comment, the work transcends any hierarchy of specific events to regard the nature of evil itself and the ease with which such vast crimes pass from memory.
We are now several generations, and, sadly, genocides, on from the last "war to end wars." Our notion of history, and the manner in which we teach it continues to change; but as Norfolk's work ably and undeniably testifies, memory of atrocities continues to fade. As the stark, beautiful landscapes at the end of this series clearly remind us, memory decays as rapidly as physical evidence when left abandoned. Few today have no concept of the Holocaust but how many have ever heard of the Herero People? History, as Simon Norfolk tells us, is indeed about today; but only in memory resides hope for tomorrows yet to come. •