Helena Schätzle has made the book that previous generations of German photographers were unwilling or unable to deal with: Confronting the country’s past, Nazi Germany’s genocidal war. Of course, there is no way a single book, by a single artist, could possibly deal with the every facet of the horror World War 2 inflicted upon Europe, and especially upon, to use a term coined by historian Timothy Snyder, the Bloodlands. But 9645 Kilometer Erinnerung covers a whole lot (the German title notwithstanding, the book contains text both in German and English; you can order the book via your friendly online retailer - Americans might have to use the .co.uk variant).
The book’s premise is fairly simple. Following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who as a soldier during World War 2 trekked a grand total of 9645 km (6028 miles) across large parts of Eastern Europe, the artist visited locations to photograph them. In addition, Schätzle also talked to her grandfather’s generation in those locations, giving them a chance to speak about their experiences and showing photographs from their albums. The grandfather’s trek and his words (from diaries) provide the red thread throughout the book, but the majority of the voices belongs to those whose lands and lives were ravaged by the war machine the soldier was a small cog in.
The smart, simple, and elegant design of 9645 Kilometer Erinnerung, with its different choices of paper stock and of images sizes and placement, enhances the power of the photographs and of the words. The viewer is left with small glimpses into a horror that ultimately cannot be told in any way; and it is here that photography itself might actually have an advantage over writing, say. With its ability to bypass all thinking (provided the viewer is allowing for that to happen) it can allow that which is depicted speak to us in ways that other art forms can only dream of: The power of the machine.
9645 Kilometer Erinnerung; photographs by Helena Schätzle, plus archival photographs; text by various authors (German and English); 168 pages, Nimbus, 2012