'Extraordinary people'

Photographer Harry Borden calls his portraits of survivors a 'modest contribution' to the fight against Holocaust denial.

Peter Lantos 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy, Harry Borden)
Peter Lantos 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy, Harry Borden)
Portrait photographer Harry Borden was born in New York but grew up in the farmland of Devon, England, where the only other Jewish person in the vicinity was his atheist father. While still a child, during a conversation about racism, Borden's father explained to him that had he lived in Germany during World War II, he would have been killed by Hitler. "Growing up, this is the only thing I knew about Judaism," says Borden. "It naturally had a marked effect on me." Borden went on to study photography and over 20 years has become one of the premier portrait photographers, with more than 100 examples of his work in London's National Portrait Gallery. He has photographed for every imaginable magazine, including The Observer, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Time. He has tried to photograph a cross section of society - celebrities, politicians, businesspeople, sportspeople, farmers - and unlike many portrait photographers stays clear of fashion. And while his work for editors and art directors has received numerous awards, he is now reaching further for a project of his own. "As seductive as photographing celebrities is," he says, "I wanted to take control and start producing work that was significant personally and also in a historical context." His father's comment about being killed by Hitler had haunted him all his life, and so for his first significant body of work he decided to photograph people who survived the Holocaust. "I was astonished by the lack of a definitive set of portraits of survivors," he explains. "Given a few decades, with the fog of time setting in, people can question the veracity of the events." For Borden, documenting the faces of real people in their homes is his "modest contribution" to fighting against "foolish and sinister people [that] feel able to deny the Holocaust ever happened." Borden's approach to photographing is simple. Celebrities are often surprised that his shoots aren't big productions. With the survivors project, he comes by himself with a tripod. He uses only daylight, he says, to give the image a timeless sense. "Flash kills the atmosphere," he says, quoting Eve Arnold, best known for her photos of Marilyn Monroe. "The really great photographers rarely use complicated techniques," he explains. As examples he also mentions Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon - the photographers he admires most. At some point he also realized that they were all Jewish. "My father has a kind of tribal connection to being Jewish," reflects Borden. "He was born in New York to Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants. During World War II he lied about his age and joined the Marines to fight Hitler. He's a staunch supporter of Israel. But there's no spiritual support that comes from Judaism." FOR BORDEN, this project was a chance to meet Jewish people. "It sounds banal," he admits, "but I grew up without them." The journey has taken him from the UK to Australia, and will now bring him to Israel for the first time. "My father's an ardent Zionist," he says, "and I'm my father's son. But I also tend to play devil's advocate. With my dad I argue the case of the Palestinians, and with my liberal friends in London I tend to argue his position." He explains that in the UK there is a pro-Palestinian alliance between the aristocracy, who have a romanticized idea of the noble Arab based on Lawrence of Arabia, and the traditional Left who regard Israeli as an imperialist project. "I'm pro-Israel, but I can see both sides." But though Borden is aware of these political issues, he isn't coming to Israel to engage in politics. His mission is concrete and focused: to photograph survivors of the Holocaust. It's important to him not to create a hierarchy of suffering, and in deciding on a definition of a survivor he turned to the London Jewish Cultural Center's definition: "Anyone whose life has been irrevocably changed due to Nazi race ideology." Each person who sits for Borden also writes a short handwritten and signed recollection or reflection about his or her life, which will be published alongside the portrait. In return, sitters receive a free print of the photograph. "My skill as a photographer is to create intimate portraits." He plans to photograph 150 portraits overall and then collect them in a book. "I'd like it to be something someone can sit down, look through, and contemplate without being overwhelmed." Having photographed nearly 70 people, he comments that "survivors are in many respects a self-selecting group of extraordinary people." Nonetheless, Borden's portraits focus on their ordinariness. "You see someone who looks like your grandmother." The reaction to Borden's search for subjects has been "amazing," especially in Melbourne, where he says he met a lot of Polish Jews. He says finding people is easier thanks to the Internet, but he suspects there might be a second, underlying reason: "People who didn't want to talk about their experiences are now looking for opportunities to be a part of something." And unlike other projects that collect testimony about the Holocaust, Borden's collected testimony, aside from a single handwritten sentence, is completely silent. To contact Harry Borden about sitting for a portrait before April 9, e-mail the photographer at harry.borden@btinternet.com or Miriam Hechtman at miriamhechtman@optusnet.com.au. For more information, see www.harryborden.com/survivors.