In the second installment of “From the Academy,” Dr. David Shneer, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, tells us about his current research and academic work.
My new book project, Bearing Witness: Soviet Jewish Photographers Confront World War II and the Holocaust, looks at the lives and works of two dozen photojournalists who were the first people to document the Holocaust as liberators.
The book moves Holocaust Studies in a new direction by looking at the Holocaust through the eyes of Jews who watched and documented it unfolding, a group with unprecedented access to visual stories of the Holocaust. I can only ask this question about Jews as witnesses by placing the Soviet experience front and center. I can see how Soviet Jews with the power of the camera photographed, responded to, and ended up memorializing events that had personal, familial, national, and universal consequences for each of them.
From a methodological vantage point, I encourage historians to take visual culture seriously by moving photography, analyses of the images themselves, the photographers, and the process by which photography was produced and circulated to the center of our study of narratives and storytelling, rather than simply using images as illustrations of other histories. And I encourage cultural critics who study Holocaust photography to take the photographers seriously and to see photographs not just as images to be read but also as cultural objects that are produced in certain times and places, by individuals operating in specific aesthetic and political universes.
My work on these photographers is also a part of my general intellectual passion to bring groups of Jews, in this case Soviet Jews and the photographers among them, into the general narratives of Jewish history. It is this drive that encouraged my work on the intersections between sexuality and Judaism in modern Jewish society, and on reconceptualizing the Jewish map as a global, rather than diasporic, map in my recent co-authored book