Ten years ago, Harry Borden was a successful celebrity photographer who’d checked off many of his personal life goals. He’d been in Vogue and the New Yorker, and he had photographed famous people like Margaret Thatcher, Elton John, and David Beckham. He was happy with his work. But after a couple of decades in the industry, he yearned to do more.
“I’ve had 25 years of doing portraits of the great,” he told Uproxx. “And I have all those sort of milestones that you want as a photographer. But you start to think, ‘I want to do projects that are meaningful to me personally rather than just those that confer a sort of status or are well paid.’”
This yearning led Borden to the project that has taken over his life for the past decade. ‘Survivor’ is an extensive collection of portraits of Holocaust survivors taken by Borden. The project is profoundly important to him and with survivors passing away rapidly, one that seemed vital.
“In a decade or so there won’t be anyone with first hand experience,” Borden said. “It seemed an obvious project to do for anyone.”
For Borden, whose father was Jewish but grew up in a Christian neighborhood with non-religious parents, it felt like a very personal way to connect with his heritage. The results of this passion project — ‘Survivor: A Portrait of the Survivors of the Holocaust’ — make for an incredibly powerful, heartbreaking, and important book. The portraits Borden took are so intimate and avoid the clichés of the survivor as ‘solely a victim’ or ‘solely heroic.’
“I wanted to explore the ambiguity of the subtlety,” he says, “that everyone is an individual.”
Borden’s portraits are of men and women who have been subjected to the most traumatic, horrific events imaginable. People who were marked for death, and yet, these images teem with life. The survivors carry their pain with them, but they also carry lives filled with joy, love, and family. That’s what Borden set out to capture, the enormity of a life lived long past its greatest tragedy. And as we face a near future without anyone left alive to personally share stories of these atrocities, we are left with these portraits of human beings, varied, complicated, and so very poignant.
We talked to Borden about the work behind ‘Survivors’ and he shared a collection of some of his favorite photos from the series.
This project took several years to complete. Can you talk about that process?
I started in London. I did a talk at the London Jewish Cultural Center, which is a pretty small organization that facilitates survivors going to schools and talking about what they experienced. I did a slide show of the famous people that I’ve photographed as entertainment. And at the end of my slide show about my life as a photographer I just sort of said to them, I want to do portraits of survivors, would anyone be interested in participating? I think a few people thought it would be kind of a novel thing to photographed by the guy that photographed Baroness Thatcher, say.
And so, yeah I started with a few. This was about 10 years ago and then I was in Australia with my ex who is Australian. We’ve got three children and everything, so we were going to Australia regularly. And I gave an interview with the Australian Jewish News and by then I had a link to the initial portraits that I’d shot. I got lots of people emailing me saying they wanted to be part of the project. There are lots of survivors in Melbourne.
I began to realize that the project was quite intimidating. I needed to do it on a big scale and so I probably needed a little bit of help. Miriam Hechtman came along at the right time, and she’s become one of my best friends. Her grandparents are survivors and she’s really interested in the subject. And so, we became partners in it and she helped me facilitate trips to Israel and then finally New York.
Then when we found a publisher, I was really pleased that they insisted that the back third of the book is all biographies of all the people. How the Holocaust impacted them and then their lives after. A Holocaust historian validated all these stories and helped to get the names right and the names of the camps. It’s a historically, rigorously researched document as well as a photographic book. And because they insisted on this sort of level of historical accuracy, Miriam and I had to contact all the survivors to get all this information. Sometimes we couldn’t get a hold of people because they’d died and they didn’t have any family. We had to research and then write the biographies ourselves. The last couple of years it’s been not much photography and a lot of detective work, really.
As a portrait photographer, what is your process? Did you get to know your subjects much beforehand?
My ethos really with life is that we’re only here for a blink of an eye. Initially when I started photography I was working for the music press. Back then, in the late eighties, early nineties, everyone had a very masculine kind of approach to photography. It was a kind of slavish obsession with technique.
I soon tired of that and for me, portraits are simply a record of the relationship we have with the person on the day. I don’t really like photography where photographers just stamp people with their technique and already know what they’re trying to portray before they’ve even met the person. For me, what I like to do is have an authentic human exchange. It’s more about trying to get intrinsic pleasure from the process of doing the shoot rather than setting up a very complex lighting rig, so all the pictures are very simple. And no, I didn’t have any great knowledge of the individual before I met them, I just sort of turned up. They told me a little bit maybe in the email about themselves, but I just got them to simply write a sentence in their own handwriting to accompany their photograph. It was some years later when I contacted them again and got their full biographical information.
“I am happy to be able to live in England for the last 70 years, as this saved my life and kept me happy and alive.” -Osias Findling
What was it like to take portraits of these survivors without knowing their full stories and then to, years later, hear everything they went through? What stuck you about that experience?
What was striking was that no two people were the same. Some people were still traumatized by what had happened to them. But some people had like a Nietzschean thing, you know? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Quite a significant number of them had remarkable lives that they led subsequently. What I did learn is that there isn’t any one type of survivor. It’s much more complex like most things. There’s a full gambit of human response really.
There are moments in shoots that I can remember very vividly. There was a guy called Felix Fibich, and it’s one of my favorite pictures. Sadly, as is the case with say 30 to 40% of the people I’ve photographed, he’s died. But he was this amazing choreographer and lived in New York.
When I photographed him he was a very old man. He asked me if he could (rather than sort of statically pose) express himself through dance. The emotion that he conveyed with his body was almost difficult to bare. He’s about 90 in the photograph and then on the wall behind is a photograph of him 40 years younger. And the picture’s so much more than just about him. It’s also about our lives being transient you know?
“In my dancing I was trying to express a full range of human emotions from the joy of life to deep sorrow of pain of tragic life.” -Felix Fibich
Did photographing these people who are nearing the end of their life cycle cause you to come away with a sense of urgency in your own life?
Absolutely. You know, I photographed people in London and then I photographed people in Australia again. Then around 2009 my wife and I split up and it was like a trap door opening. We’re best friends now. We’ve got three children together so that’s important. But at that moment in time, I was planning the trip to Israel and I almost canceled it and then I thought, well I’m just going to go even though I’m in sort of in a very emotionally raw state and it was amazing. The sense of perspective it gave me for my own life. You just realize that, really what I was experiencing was of very little consequence. It wasn’t like my children were sick or that Jane had died. She just met someone else, so big deal. You know, it wasn’t like I didn’t have the opportunity to create a different type of relationship with her. When you contrast that with what some of the survivors have experienced that…even the people on the kinder transport, their whole family was killed by the Nazis when they came to the UK.
So yes, on a personal level it gave me a great deal of perspective. As you get older you begin to realize that you’re maybe no longer at the height of your powers and it’s about sort of treasuring the life you have and savoring every moment.
You had the survivors write their own quotes to accompany the photographs. Can you talk a little bit about that and any of the quotes that really personally affected you?
What they wrote was illustrative of what I was saying before about how everybody’s an individual. One guy, I remember him very well, in fact I was thinking of him when I was talking about the guy that you know, was on the kinder transport and he put, remember, I think he wrote, remember babies were murdered.
There was a guy in upstate New York called Charles, who went on to run a hedge fund. I photographed him and he wrote, the sign of a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind. That’s what I wanted, that kind of ambiguity. I keep coming back to Rita Knopf who’s a London based survivor. She encapsulates it really when she wrote, “everybody’s experience is very personal.”
You had some wonderful people who’d written poetry. Amazing poetry, you know? One person, a man wrote, again sadly died, he just wrote, I have nothing to say. Which is kind of very powerful in itself.
“There is a mountain of literature, film, music, painting, sculpture, archive, and history that refers to the horror of the Holocaust. Little is said of those survivors who, despite their pains and loss, made a success of their lives. I wish to move the story on to honour and celebrate those of us whose rich and full lives have embraced the future.” -Maurice Blik
It’s such a powerful series and while it’s relevant at any time, it’s very timely right now with this rise of xenophobic politicians in so many places.
Absolutely. I think that needs to be called out. Yeah. I find it really disturbing and depressing. The whole Brexit thing and Trump — I think these people are playing with fire. I remember with another series I did on single parent fathers, Bob Geldof wrote me an essay that’s amazing. But I remember, we were talking around the time because Scotland was thinking of leaving the union and the United Kingdom and he said, “I grew up in Ireland you know, I know about nationalism and I know where it leads and it’s never a good place.” And it’s true and that’s what Trump is doing-just playing with fire. That’s what was happening in the 1930s and we all know what happened
It’s like we’ve learned nothing. It’s like our leaders have learned nothing from the past.
“ALONE. There is no philosophy to describe the sadness of a lone tree with dead roots, even if nestled in far away woods, all one can hear, is memory and tales of bygone years and prayers promised for my soul, when I am gone.” -Bronia Rosenbaum
“They took my mother and pushed me back with the butt of a gun-I knew I would never see her again.” -Cesia Altstock
“Everybody has a story to be told-they are all important for everybody to know what has happened. Mine is nearly at its end, but at least it is not the ending that the Nazis had planned for me.” -Suzanne Goodchild
“My name is Hersel Szarfsztum. Born 3-3 1928 in Ryki, Poland. I am proud to be a Jew.” -Zvi Sharp
“In Limbo: In the black hole of our Planet Earth, Auschwitz, They drove me out, When it ceased to be; Yet who will drive it out of me? It still exists. Only death will be my exorcist.” -Lidia Vago
“In my heart, I always thought my parents would survive.” -Debora Brenner
“I stand tall and proud, My voice shouts in silence; I am a real person still, no one can break my spirit or will! I am a star!” -Inge Auerbacher