The Ethics of Photography: The Last Jew in Vinnitsa, 1941

This photograph is incredibly haunting. It was reportedly taken by a member of the Einsatzgruppen in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, in 1941. It shows a member of the Einsatzgruppen preparing to murder a Jewish Ukrainian man. The man stares off out of the camera’s view as he clutches his coat. His body will fall into a mass grave.The last Jew in Vinnitsa, 1941

But I wonder about the historian’s ethical implication in sharing explicit photographs such as these, as well as the assumptions we make about them. Was the man actually executed? How can I say he was scared? Was he defiant? Can we call him a ‘victim’ of Nazism in Eastern Europe? The onlookers are so passive. Hannah Arendt wrote of this photograph.

The neutral expressions on the shooter and his uniformed audience pretty well encapsulate that concept [the banality of evil]: they could be watching a barber cut hair, instead of the heartless extermination of innocents. Humans can adapt to endure almost anything, but in doing so, they sometimes perpetuate incredible evil. The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism.

By publishing this image here, I am complicit in showing this photograph. I am not entirely sure why I do it. Arguments can be made about censorship and making this man a victim – in a sense, executing him again. In fact, this photograph is much more haunting than that. We do not witness the moment of execution. Rather, the man is forever kneeling above a grave.

But that assumes so much about this photograph, these men, and that man. What if we read it differently? What if the man was defiant? Photographs of human atrocities ought to be carefully viewed, but I do not accept their censoring. This image powerfully shows what humans can adapt to become, as Arendt notes. These photographs should shock us and inspire us to understand them. We should not be ignorant of our complicity of publishing them, but neither should we shy away from them.

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