It is easy to deride “selfies” and the scads of photos that people today often compulsively take and share with their cellphones. But let’s not write them all off as meaningless. As I’ve seen in my parents’ remarkable journey from the doomed Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and in my psychiatry practice, photographs have immense power to heal.
My parents grew up in Lodz, which then was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. On Feb. 8, 1940, the Nazis established the Lodz ghetto. My father, Abraham Bursztajn, was condemned to be part of a sanitation crew called the Fekalists, literally the feces carriers. It was responsible for removing sewage from the ghetto and preventing the spread of infectious disease. The task, which meant near-certain death, was his punishment for refusing to join the ghetto’s Jewish police force, which answered to and worked for the Nazis.
One day Abraham saw Miriam Bryks, a girl he had met before the war, preparing to board a train bound for Auschwitz. In an act of bravado, he told a German soldier guarding the train that Miriam was an essential member of the sanitation crew, and brought her back with him to the ghetto. They married in secret, worked together as Fekalists throughout the war, engaged in nonviolent resistance, and were among the handful of survivors of the 200,000 Jews who had been imprisoned in the ghetto.
Some of my parents’ history I know from the stories they and their relatives have told over the years, some I know from visiting Lodz, and some I learned from the haunting photographs taken at great risk by Henryk Ross who, with the help of his wife, Steffie, secretly documented life in Lodz under Nazi rule. Hoping to leave behind a record of what happened there, Ross and his wife buried their 6,000 negatives in 1944. They returned after the city was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945, and were overjoyed to find that many of the images had survived.
On June 17, I have the honor of speaking about an exhibition of some of Ross’s Lodz photographs, called “Memory Unearthed,” now on display in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
At a time when Nazi and Stalinist photographers were using their cameras to generate cold, impersonal images of dominance and superiority, Ross was using his to create images of everyday life in the ghetto that were brimming with compassion and mutual respect. Even in the midst of the Shoah (Holocaust), Ross helped both the photographer and those photographed share with dignity the horror of humiliation, the fear of oblivion, and the pain of grief.
Is this so different from the photographs that are so freely taken and shared today? They establish what philosopher Martin Buber would call an “I-Thou” relationship between photographer and subject. Even with the selfie, where the photographer and the subject are the same, the intention is still to connect with others.
In Ross’s hands, the camera became a creative, artistic, therapeutic instrument that empowered mental health. Seventy years later, these photographs provide much more than simple forensic documentation. They offer inspiration for anyone who has experienced suffering, hopelessness, and the question that was asked by one of the ghetto inhabitants, “When will this ever end?”
Through Ross’s work we can learn much that is otherwise obscure about ordinary life, trauma, grief, and loss, as well as about our capacity to choose good and evil and continue to be creative and resilient in the midst of life and when facing death. In this vein, his work belongs alongside the work of other creative and therapeutic artists such as Rembrandt, Goya, and Hyman Bloom, all of whom depicted the vital rhythms of life in the face of war, encroaching death, and entropy.
Photography and the visual arts can be therapeutic in everyday life. An adolescent patient of mine, traumatized as a young child by a psychotic parent, sometimes shows me a photograph on his cellphone of the dog he loves, and how beautifully and peacefully the animal sleeps. I thank him for showing it to me, admire this act of sharing what he loves, and then we explore his anguish and fears as well as his hopes. The photograph provides a safe bridge from the present to the past.
A fragile older woman shares with me fading photographs of the great beauty she was as a young woman. I am grateful that she feels safe enough with me to share these images, which deepen our ability to explore together what she fears most — the loss of family members and her youthful vigor — and in doing so her mature beauty shines forth and she feels empowered to face the inevitability of entropy.
The ease of sharing cellphone photos provides a way for people to feel connected in this often disconnected world. People who have been traumatized can use them to create a community of trust between themselves and others. The seemingly doomed Fekalists who Ross photographed shared their experience not only with Ross but also with a future most knew they would not see. Today, the patients who share photographs with those who they trust transcend the isolation and aloneness that are all too often the handmaidens of suffering.
In my field, forensic psychiatry, we sometimes use the term “therapeutic jurisprudence.” It refers to the process whereby victims of abuse feel empowered as a result of the course of litigation. It’s time we start thinking about “therapeutic photography.”
Harold J. Bursztajn, MD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and has a private practice in clinical and forensic psychiatry and psychoanalysis.