Picturing Jasenovac: Atrocity Photography Between Evidence and Propaganda

Byford, Jovan (2018). Picturing Jasenovac: Atrocity Photography Between Evidence and Propaganda. In: Frubis, Hildegard; Oberle, Clara and Pufelska, Agnieszka eds. Fotografien aus den Lagern des NS-Regimes: Beweissicherung und ästhetische Praxis. Schriften des Centrums für jüdische Studien. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, pp. 227–248.


Between 1941 and 1945, approximately 80,000 inmates, mainly Serbs, Jews and Roma, perished in Jasenovac, a brutal Ustasha–run concentration camp in the Independent State of Croatia. Ever since the 1980s, Jasenovac has been one of the most contentious aspects of the memory of the Second World War in the former Yugoslavia. Controversies surrounding the number of victims and the nature and purpose of the camp, which continue to polarize the region, have been well documented. However, there has been hardly any scholarly research on the deep divisions regarding the photographic record of Jasenovac and the uses of images in the representation of the horrors of this camp. This is even though fundamental differences in the perceived importance of atrocity images permeate the dominant cultures of memory in the region, and represent an important barrier to reconciliation. In Serbia and in the Bosnian Serb entity of Republika Srpska, graphic atrocity photographs are routinely used in in the mainstream press, in television documentaries, in books and exhibitions devoted to Jasenovac. One can even speak of a distinct aesthetic of memory, captured in a number of iconic images that serve to sustain the vision of the Ustashe as uniquely barbaric and evil, and of Jasenovac as the place of unimaginable cruelty. By contrast, in Croatia, atrocity images are almost completely absent from public discourse, on the grounds that their authenticity is compromised and that decades of propagandistic misuse by the Serbian side have undermined the status of atrocity photographs as a medium through which the past can be adequately represented.

The chapter argues that in order to understand these different approaches to atrocity photographs, it is necessary to look beyond the socio-political circumstances of Yugoslavia in 1980s and 1990s, and the instrumentalization of history that defined that era. There is much to be gained from looking further into the past and considering the legacy of the Yugoslav State Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Committed by the Occupiers and Their Accomplices in Yugoslavia, which operated between 1944 and 1948. By offering the first detailed scholarly examination of the War Crimes Commission’s attitude to, and uses of, photographs, both generally, and in relation to Jasenovac, the chapter argues that contemporary polemics about atrocity images and their relevance echo many of the Commission’s own dilemmas regarding the role of visual evidence in documenting atrocity, about the propaganda potential and emotional power of violent images, and the ways in which images can be deployed strategically to sustain particular narratives of victimhood and villainy. Also, it shows how institutional practices through which the Commission collected photographs paved the way for many of the subsequent controversies surrounding their ‘authenticity’ and relevance as a historiographic source.

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