It took Marc Wilson six years to document 22 stories of Holocaust survivors and their descendants across 130 locations in 20 countries.
Now, the photographer is sharing his work in A Wounded Landscape – Bearing Witness to the Holocaust, first as a book and now as a Side Gallery touring exhibition.
Initially rooted in the way that Wilson's own family experienced Nazi persecution during the Second World War, the series soon broadened to include the stories of friends and acquaintances whose families had also been affected, then a wider community of survivors and their descendants. The series was completed in 2021 and the resulting exhibition, A Wounded Landscape, is showing at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, during winter 2023.
London-born Marc Wilson uses powerful visual imagery and immersive audio narratives to give survivors and their families a voice he hopes will echo down the generations.
Ben Barkow, director of The Wiener Holocaust Library, says Wilson’s work had an immediate impact on him. “He testifies to the lasting physical and spiritual echoes of mass murder but does so in a way that is wholly allied with the suffering of victims. In this way he manages to offer us something akin to consolation, even as he asks us to recall and contemplate the horror of the Holocaust.”
Here, Wilson explains what inspired the series and exhibition.
‘Ash pond, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland, 2019’
Your work focuses on landscape as a way of telling human stories. What drew you to such a monumental collective story as the Holocaust?
I have always worked in the landscape as a way to tell human stories. I’m interested in that connection between what we see now and past events, and how the landscape can hold these memories and show them to us.
I had felt the need to make a piece of work about the Holocaust for over 20 years, ever since I started taking photographs. For many years though I simply felt I was not good enough as a photographer to make this work, I was not ready, I could not make the right photographs that this subject matter demanded. I felt I did not have the right voice or visual language to talk about it in the right way.
After I had completed the series The Last Stand in 2014 I felt, finally, I now had a visual language I hoped would be sensitive enough to talk about this tragedy. A voice that was quiet but still insistent, to talk about a history that I felt did not need to be ‘shouted’ about but at the same time must be spoken about and heard, not ignored, forgotten or allowed to drift or be removed from our collective memories through the denial of these events.
‘Paulina Kuppermann’s travel pass, London, 2017’
The series A Wounded Landscape is based around 22 Holocaust survivor stories – including second and third generation – and is made at over 160 locations throughout Europe. How did you decide which stories to tell?
I never wanted to try to ‘choose’ any story for its details or associated locations, each memory being as important as the next. I did not know how many stories I would tell when I set out and I let it happen very naturally. The first story was that of my own family, not chosen because it was more important than another but because it was the simplest to start with. In the early days of making this work I worried as to why someone might want to talk to me, who was I for them to give their time and memories to.
After listening and discovering my own family history the second story was a friend of my mother’s. The third a connection of this and on and on, each story or trip giving me the next. I would sit and listen – and record on audio – our conversations. Only after this would we make the portraits of each story. By this point those I was speaking with were comfortable to show themselves in exactly the way they wanted to be seen for these portraits.
I also carried with me a small box of 7x5in work prints from the project so I could show people what I was doing.
Other stories came from a chance encounter on a bus journey through the desert on my way to the location of another story, and one simply from asking for directions in a small village in Transnistria, the county that does not exist.
I made each portrait and recording as I met these 22 individuals, after which I would then travel to the locations in the stories to make the images set in the landscapes. Hence my criss-crossing over 20 countries again and again over the six years of making the work, often visiting the same location again, but with a further conversation in my head.
'A former concentration camp at the village of Harzungen, near Nordhausen, Thuringia, Germany, March 2018’
Which story has made the biggest impact on you and why?
I’ve worked hard to never put one story or one location over the other. Some of the conversation certainly affected me more immediately, though. I came out of one meeting where I heard things that were too difficult to put in the book and spent three hours walking in the wrong direction, the words I had just heard going round and round in my head.
Obviously following my own family’s history had another type of effect on me and the events that unfolded in the small village of my family in Romania affected me deeply for a long time.
‘Site of the Ponary massacre, Ponary, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2018’
The series, now a book and touring exhibition, has the backing of the Wiener Holocaust Library. What difference has that made?
The support I received from the Wiener Holocaust Library among a number of institutions and groups was hugely important. It was only after a particular meeting with Ben Barkow at the Wiener Library that I had the self-belief to throw myself into this work fully as it needed doing.
He has seen so much work made on the Holocaust in all forms – writing, painting, photography, film – so for him to sit across the table from me and, on seeing the images I was making, tell me “these are incredible”, meant a huge amount to me. I was already six months into the work at that point and it was only then I knew I was doing something important in the right way.
On a financial level it was only with the support of the Toni Schiff Memorial Fund that I could make this six-year project – so the support was not only moral but also practical. The continued support I get from the Holocaust Centre North and now Side Gallery in Newcastle and Impressions Gallery in Bradford is imperative in that it allows me to continue showing and talking about this work to new and wider audiences. A selection of the work is also being shown at the Indian Photo Festival in November this year so the audience for it continues to grow.
‘Simon Malkes (b 1927) Paris, France, 27 June 2018’
All images by Marc Wilson. A Wounded Landscape – Bearing Witness to the Holocaust is at Impressions Gallery, 28 October 2023 to 3 February 2024, Tue to Sat, free entry. A book of the series is also available.
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