Auschwitz, 1941: Hiding to Survive
"Keep still! Good... Don't lift your chin too high. Don't move... That's it."
The shutter clicked, and the prisoner's image was exposed onto the large six-by-twelve-centimeter negative. Brasse approached the revolving chair on which the prisoner was sitting. His subject drew back instinctively, as if he were afraid of being hit, but the photographer reassured him.
"It's all right. I just want to adjust something."
He neatened the collar of the man's uniform: one of the buttons was half undone.
Back behind the camera, he looked through the viewfinder again.
"Take your hat off and look straight at the lens. Don't blink, don't smile. No grimacing, please... What sort of a face is that?"
The prisoner couldn't hold his expression, even for the few seconds needed to take his picture. He was Polish and answered Brasse's question in their mother tongue.
"My back hurts. It's really bad."
The man who had escorted the prisoner to the studio was also a Pole. He was a kapo—a prisoner promoted to a position of authority in the camp—and he now approached the chair and gave the man a slap.
"Sit up straight and do what the photographer tells you. Here, all you do is obey!"
Brasse glanced at the kapo. He hadn't seen him before and didn't know which block he was from, but he wasn't afraid of him. Brasse was in charge in the studio, especially when it came to the "clients," and he didn't want prisoners to be needlessly mistreated.
"Kapo, don't hit him again! Not in my studio! Do you understand?"
The man swore under his breath and went back to lean against the wall. "All right, all right. But we'll deal with this disgusting rat later..."
Brasse repeated his requests to the prisoner, and the man finally looked at the lens, his forehead wrinkled, eyes wide, and neck straining with the effort of holding the pose. The shutter clicked.
When Brasse raised his head again, the prisoner hadn't moved. It had taken so long to get him into position that he was struggling to come back to reality. His eyes, still wide open, looked enormous in his emaciated face, and they were bright, so bright. In this moment, when he had forgotten everything, they gave a certain splendor to the rest of his face and his whole being. It was as if there were a stubborn flame deep within them that was determined not to be extinguished.
It was Brasse who broke the spell.
He reached out and pulled a nearby lever. Immediately, the prisoner's chair rotated ninety degrees, allowing him to be photographed in profile. But when Brasse looked in the viewfinder, he saw that the man, who had come to, was now too high up. Another lever lowered the chair, and finally the deportee's neck was at the right height.
"Don't put your hat back on. Look at the wall opposite you." The man obeyed, and the photographer took his final picture. "Good. You can go."
"Come on, walk!" shouted the kapo.
The man got to his feet with a look of disappointment. He wanted to savor the respite afforded by the photography process. He didn't want to go outside into the cold. He wanted to stay there, in the warmth. But there was no time. Another prisoner was ready to take his place. Already the queue was snaking out of the room. Brasse glanced over and saw at least twenty other prisoners waiting. They were standing up straight, not speaking, looking ahead. Not one of them dared infringe on the rule of total silence.