ARTS & CULTURE

Survivors Of The Holocaust Write The Captions To Their Own Portraits

"In this era of fake news," photographer Harry Borden says his images "are a strong rebuttal to Holocaust Deniers.”

12/04/2017 12:39 AM AEST | Updated 12/04/2017 12:39 AM AEST
Harry Borden

In an effort to allude to what’s impossible to fully communicate, Holocaust survivor Lydia Vagos wrote the following poem to accompany a portrait of herself, taken by photographer Harry Borden:  

In Limbo
In the black hole of our 
Planet Earth
Auschwitz
They drove me out when it ceased to be;
Yet who will drive it out of me? 
It still exists. 
Only death will be my exorcist.

Vagos is one of almost 200 people Borden featured in his series “Survivor,” a haunting compendium of portraits that hint at an unimaginably painful past. Borden had worked as a celebrity photographer for around 25 years until, in 2008, he decided to, in his words, “use [his] skills to an intelligent end.”

As he explained in an email to The Huffington Post, Borden “hoped to make a small contribution to the documentation of a uniquely horrific event in modern history. In this era of fake news, the images are a strong rebuttal to Holocaust Deniers.”

Harry Borden
"In my dancing I was trying to express a full range of human emotions from the joy of life to deep sorrow of pain and suffering of tragic life."

Raised by a Jewish father who identifies as atheist, Borden was interested in how the horrific events of the Holocaust had influenced his father’s faith. As he explained to Feature Shoot, “I think it was my dad’s ambivalence towards his heritage ― and his disturbing revelation that it had once been deemed punishable by death ― that really motivated me to create this body of work.”

The series features portraits from individuals of various ages, genders and nationalities, based in Australia, Israel, the U.K. and U.S. Each portrait is shot with minimal staging and equipment in the subjects’ homes. “It would have been easier to set up a studio and photograph lots of people at the same time,” Borden said, “but I wanted the pictures to be an authentic record of our meeting on that day.”

The series’ straightforward and unflinching style was inspired by artists like Irving Penn, Diane Arbus and August Sander, whose work, Borden specified, was greatly constrained under the Nazis. To complete each portrait, the photographer invited his subjects to handwrite a message alongside the image, whether a poem, a memory or an attempt to express how it feels to survive such an atrocity. 

“The response has been universally great,” Borden wrote, “but the praise for the book from my subjects I’ve found particularly satisfying.”

See the images and read the words below. The complete photography book Survivor: A portrait of the survivors of the Holocaust is also available for purchase. 

  • Harry Borden
    "We were rehearsing Brahm's lullaby in the singing lesson when the Headmistress came and and said 'You've got to leave now, you're Jewish.'"
  • Harry Borden
    "A physically and emotionally crippling experience." 
  • Harry Borden
    "I'm happy to be able to live in England for the last 70 years, as this saved my life and kept me happy and alive." 
  • Harry Borden
    "As a hidden child I frequently lecture to children about my experience. My great concern is who will tell our stories when we're gone in not too many years?" 
  • Harry Borden
    "ALONE 
    There is no philosophy to describe 
    the sadness of a lone tree with dead roots
    even if nestled in faraway woods
    all one can hear is memory of tales
    of bygone years, and prayers promised
    for my soul, when I am gone." 
  • Harry Borden
    "Everyone's experience is very personal." 
  • Harry Borden
    "In my heart I always felt my parents would survive."
  • Harry Borden
    "My grandma used to say that she could not believe what she went through. A reminder of the past and an inspiration for the future. A survivor in every sense of the word. She lived to raise two children and deeply cherished her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Grandma passed away 33 days ago."
  • Harry Borden
    "Thinking of the horrors of Bergen-Belsen,
    I suddenly realized I have arrived
    towards the end of my life, at a perfect 
    moment of peace. I feel no pain, no anger
    and no hate." 
  • Harry Borden

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