Auschwitz – Poland

In Sketchbook, Travel by Chris Foley2 Comments

Episode 6 : Europe 2016 - Oświęcim, Poland - A Trip Into Auschwitz
This is the sixth post in a series chronicling my photography project through Spain, France, Poland, & Czech Republic. Click on this TAG to view all of the articles in this series. If you want to skip all the text, you can scroll all the way down to a gallery of images from inside Auschwitz.

Auschwitz. Concentration camp. This place is many things to many people.

I’ve been practicing steadfast avoidance with regards to writing this blog post for the past 7 months now. It’s very hard to talk about this place and what it means to me. It’s not particularly painful to talk about, though it is painful to visit. It’s just rather difficult to articulate. I find that words are insufficient to convey what’s there for me.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp is located in Oświęcim, Poland. (“Auschwitz” is simply the Germanization of the Polish “Oświęcim”, just as “Gdansk” became “Danzig” under German occupation.)

Auschwitz 2001

Pausha & Chris in Auschwitz, 2001

I first visited the camp in 2001 with Pausha. I’ve since been back in 2012, and once again in 2016. Pausha has been countless times. Each time for me has been a profound experience and each time I’ve come out changed.

CASE IN POINT: I’ve been sitting at my computer typing out these two paltry paragraphs for the better part of an hour. I really do find it difficult to explain why this place is important for me, what I get out of bearing witness here, why I’m so drawn to coming back. In this case words just fail.

I’ll talk about photography instead. Kazdyn and I rented a car and we had our week planned out. We were a bit bummed when the forecast quite suddenly called for heavy rains on "Auschwitz Day”. Undaunted, and unable to change our plans to another day, we headed towards Oświęcim with some optimism that the weather would hold up. The weather did not hold up. We were treated to dark, overcast skies until finally it broke wide open and we were treated to a steady downpour. For over an hour.

The downside of the rains is that we took refuge inside various buildings waiting for pauses in the deluge to go back out and shoot. I was personally disinterested in shooting any of the museum exhibits (all quite horrifying), but having to stay indoors with those exhibits wasn’t very comforting either. I finally went outside in the rain anyway. My cameras are weather-resistant and it was warm enough, and I didn’t want to spent any more time inside the museum buildings than I needed to. I’ve included some of the images from the few hours we were there at the bottom of this post. You can skip down to the gallery if you like.

Before we get to the gallery, there are two photos that I wanted to talk about in particular.

First is this image, which I have entitled Hope, the Dove of Auschwitz. There’s a story behind this image.

Oświęcim, Poland

Oświęcim, Poland

When we first arrived at the camp we were one of a thousand, million, billion people mulling about the front gate. There were several tour groups who went in that day, with many school-aged children and young adults all wandering around the place being loud kids and generally driving me crazy. I tried to shoot the iconic front gate and was not able to get anything of use. Between the rain and terrible light and the sheer volume of teenagers taking SELFIES at the front gate of the death camp (I really have no words for this) I resigned myself to failure and moved on.

Well, lucky for me, the rains seem to have encouraged most of the tour groups to pack up and leave early. As we were walking around the back end of the camp towards the crematorium an couple of hours later the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun once again graced smiled upon us. I took off and made a beeline for the front gate. It was *relatively* deserted, which is to say the hundreds of people blocking my shot had now been reduced to mere dozens of people actively blocking my shot.

I claimed my ground, found my composition and got set up for my shot. I ended up taking about 30 shots from this vantage that all look very much the same but for the rapidly changing light on the buildings. As the clouds shifted over us, the dappled sunlight danced for me, and I had only to be patient and shoot around the steady stream of tourists pouring out of the grounds. You can’t see that there are bunches of people just off to each side of every frame I shot. Well, as fate would have it, I was rewarded for my patience.

This dove was nested on a rooftop in the building over to the left corner, and she took flight and circled the gate twice. I got 4 shots of her in various positions, but in this frame I got her just as she turned her belly towards me, posing for the camera in the best way imaginable. The other shots I have with her in it feature her as a bird flying head-on or as a squiggly line, etc. This one was the kind of shot I was praying for when I got up that morning. I could go back there every day for 30 years and never again get that shot. To make things even nicer, just as the dove came out that building in the center of the image lit up for just a few seconds. Prior images feature this image in mostly flat light similar to that of the building to the left. This is one of my favorite images in my portfolio to date.

Uh oh, Closing Time

I spent too must time fussing about on the gate shot and we were dangerously close to missing out on gaining entry to the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) camp just down the road. We hopped in the car and rushed over there with only 20 minutes to spare before they were to close the gate. There’s a railway car parked permanently on the train tracks inside of Birkenau and it’s quite a ways away on foot. Huffing and puffing we raced to the car and got to work.

The sky remained clear, but we were also losing the sun, and fast. I wanted to get this (also iconic) shot in a way that was perhaps a bit different than all of the ways I’ve seen it done before by others.

Many other photographers have made some excellent photos of this scene. Lots are done in very moody and grainy B&W, and I’ve seen a bunch of HDR work with super-wide angle lenses that just bring the drama. Neither of those approaches were for me and I came here wanting to avoid what I felt was an easy solution. I didn’t want to “bring the drama” to a scene that (for me) was already quite dramatic enough so chose a medium zoom, and shot the railway car and the tracks leading towards the gate. I shot the sun setting behind some guard towers, and I made some additional establishing shots at small apertures designed to show the massive scale of the place.

Then something caught my eye. In a ditch beside the train tracks grew a small patch of wildflowers.

Now, if you know your WWII history, you're already aware of what this place was, you know what those railway cars were for, and you also know what exactly happened at that very spot on those very train tracks. I'm not getting any deeper into that here. Suffice it to say that a patch of wildflowers in the day's last rays of sunlight on the exact spot where such horrific events occurred was just screaming to be photographed. This is a really good example of coming prepared but capturing something completely different than what you were planning to get.

Here was my shot. I crawled into the ditch and inched towards the flowers on my belly, careful to compose so that that tallest flower appeared to rise above the level of the train tracks and seemed to touch the sky. I took a few of these, some at f/11 where everything is in focus, including the main gate building, and a few others where the main gate is visible and recognizable, without being the focus. This one here is my favorite.

Birkenau wildflowers

Birkenau wildflowers

Right around this time the staff started to blow whistles and call everybody back to the entrance/exit. It was time to leave. We rode back to the hotel in silence. There was a lot to process.

It took me a month before I could even look at my images. It’s taken me 7 months to be able to write anything about it. Now it's out. Let's hear it for small miracles.

Thanks for reading.


Auschwitz Image Gallery.

Click on any image to open the gallery up into a Lightbox.


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