Horizon Blog

The Eye as Witness

I’ve been working for a while now on the development of PhotoRealiserVR, a constituent part of The Eye As Witness, a new exhibition about victim photography created by the National Holocaust Centre and Museum. Working closely with Professor Maiken Umbach, from The University of Nottingham’s history department, I devised and developed PhotoRealiser – an early prototype of which appeared last year in this blog.

It takes the form of a VR experience where a visitor “walks into a photograph”. In this case, the photograph in question is one form Jürgen Stroops’s report on the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. The installation features a large projected curtain which floats the photograph in mid-air, so that spectators see visitors really walking through the image. Once through the curtain, visitors find themselves in a recreation of the moment the photograph was taken, including the photographer himself and much else. The fabulous architecture CGI for the scene was created by VMI studios, with whom I worked previously on Thresholds.

There are various interesting aspects of this work from a design standpoint. First the topic itself is of course challenging. This is a propaganda photograph designed to “other” the Jews living in Warsaw, and to suppress the heroism of those involved in the ghetto uprising. Stroop’s report was supposed to show how easily the Nazi soldiers captured their prisoners and was supposed to be a matter of record for future historians, but it is what is NOT shown in the photos that matters here. PhotoRealiser allows us to look beyond the frame of this image, to an interpretation of what may have been behind the camera and out of frame. Using evidence gathered from other photos in the report we have placed a number of objects in the scene – a machine gun nest, burning buildings, prisoners being marched down the street, any more soldiers, and of course what those prisoners are looking at. We can never be sure what that was, but we have chosen to place a transport truck as the focus of their attention, which is certainly within the realms of possibility. A very large number of these people were transported to death camps and subsequently murdered.

The second aspect I’d like to draw attention to is the characters in the scene. They are carefully NOT an accurate reproduction of the exact people in the photograph, though they are similarly posed and bear a reasonable resemblance. We don’t know who these people were, and I feel it was not appropriate to recreate them exactly. Instead I use representative characters.

Third is the notion of transition. Unlike many VR recreations PhotoRealiser is designed to stay very rooted in the original photograph. As such, we begin in a modern gallery with the photograph in front of us. We are then asked to “step through” voluntarily stepping into the space. This part of the design is about ensuring that we’re not experiencing any photo, we’re experiencing THIS photo. We can return to the gallery and look back, perhaps seeing the image with a fresh perspective, and we hope also looking at other images with the same more inquiring eyes.

Back in the gallery, you can also look out of the window and see the same location where the photograph was taken as it is now. Again, this is about grounding this historical recreation in the current time.

Much of the rest of the exhibition is the concerned with showing us photographs not from the perpetrators, but those rather rarer photographs taken by the victims. Photographs with an entirely different agenda. These photographs, taken at great personal risk show their subjects as people, doing normal things and are an incredibly powerful reminder of the real lives that were shattered by the Nazi regime. I will add one here if I can get the necessary permissions.

Technically, the system is a multi-user VR experience, built on wireless HTC Vive Pro Eye headsets. Using the Vive Eye gives us the opportunity to apply foveated rendering, which increases the rendering effort spent on what a user is looking at and decreases items in the peripheral vision. This keeps quality and framerates high. Three visitors at a time  can experience the exhibit, without the need for bulky backpacks as in thresholds, thanks to the multi-channel wigig-based wireless. The scene is a little too complex for standalone headsets so a rackmounted server suite does the legwork. As a professional nerd – that box looks pretty damn cool.

Response to the exhibition has been incredibly positive, both with individuals and with the media with great reviews from ITV Central, BBC Front Row, BBC Sunday, BBC Online, The Telegraph, The Times of Israel and many others.

This may be the piece of work of I’m most proud. This picture is not 🙂

L-R Henry Grunwald Chair NHC, Dr Paul Tennent, Prof Miken Umbach University of Nottingham and Marc Cave CEO NHC at the launch of the National Holocaust Centre’s Eye as Witness exhibition at the South Hampstead United Synagogue.

You can see The Eye as Witness in a number of locations around the UK throughout 2020. See the website for details of the tour.

Photocredits: David Parry, Wikicommons, Paul Tennent, Google