This fall, several portraits of Jewish people have appeared across campus as part of an art exhibit on identity. These nineteen studio portraits are part of a public exhibition called Scene/Unseen, researched and curated by professors Dr. Julin Everett and Cari Freno. These portraits, which were taken from about 1940 to 1942, depict Jewish Europeans during Nazi occupation.
When she came across the photos in 2005, Everett was writing a paper on expression of identity through photography while working towards her doctorate. She described the photos as “studio portraits of European Jews during WWII that feature [them] wearing their yellow star in a studio portrait context.”
She went on to explain the importance of the context: The subjects of the photographs must have made the choice to be photographed while wearing their stars.
Freno added that it was fairly common for people to have their portrait taken by a professional photographer in their studio and there are a lot of portraits of Jewish people from this time, “but there are only some where they’re wearing the star in the portrait because they didn’t have to. They would have been in a Jewish business and they also would have been inside, which are two reasons that they didn’t have to wear the star.”
Everett and Freno started their collaboration on the project two years ago while at a grant-writing workshop. At the time, Freno wanted to curate a public installation on Ursinus’ campus and Everett mentioned the portraits of European Jews from WWII she had found while searching international archives. Freno said that it was Everett’s research into these images and the connection between the portraits and themes of visible versus invisible identity and self-representation that drew her to this project.
Everett confessed that she is “fascinated by the notion that someone can be branded, can become visible, and instead of throwing that off or being ashamed of it decides to hold onto that and be proud of it.”
When initially conducting research on this topic, Everett was reminded of the revolutionary psychoanalyst and philosopher Frantz Fanon.
Said Everett, “In his very famous text Black Skin, White Masks, he talks about this experience he has on the Paris metro. He’s just standing there, minding his own business, and a little kid is sitting there with his mom, and the little kid points at him and says, ‘Look, it’s a negro! It’s a negro!’ And of course his mom is super embarrassed and so Fanon has this experience where his essence is no longer important: It’s only his visible, physical manifestation that decides who he is . . . And so he determines that in this situation—which is kind of a state of crisis for him—he is just going to make himself known . . . he is going to take control of how people see him.”
Everett went on to compare Fanon’s decision to take charge of how he is perceived with that of the Jewish people’s decision to wear their yellow stars in their studio portraits.
She also pointed out that in his texts, Fanon would write about the commonalities between the experiences of Black people and Jews, “The difference being that Jews don’t always have to be visible, but you have this situation where Jews . . . are becoming visible. And how do they deal with it? Some commit suicide, rather than wearing the star; some decide, ‘I’m just going to take my chances and not wear the star;’ and [the people in the portraits] say, ‘I’m wearing the star.’”
Both Everett and Freno emphasized that this exhibition has applications broader than the experience of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, especially when it comes to the lives of those who do not necessarily have visible differences, such as members of the LGBTQIA+ community and those who are differently-abled learners.
Everett explained, “Like many of my colleagues, I am really distraught by the repeal of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] . . . and I took my CIE students on a tour of some of the portraits . . . and then I asked them, ‘What is your responsibility to your neighbors and at what point do you act?’”
She added, “I try not to inject my politics into the classroom, but at the same time, it’s not really political, it’s humanity. As humans, what responsibilities do we have to each other?”
Freno agreed, “At that point in time, these citizens of European countries were outed in a way. They were forced to wear this symbol that revealed something about their identity that prior to then they could choose to reveal or not to reveal. For me, it related a lot to more contemporary issues of sexuality or gender, or even my experience of being a first-generation student.”
Freno went on to address the fact that the nation is facing similar issues that the subjects of these portraits once faced.
Said Freno, “Fear is the ultimate oppressor, so the government and the Nazis used fear as a means of social control. These citizens are using pride and love in a way. The more I look at these photos, the more I think there’s something here . . . It’s a relationship through the bonds of the [Jewish] faith, but also heritage, community, and identity. And that’s pretty powerful, and that’s something that I think relates to our contemporary day and age where really similar issues are at the surface and there’s tension, palpable tension between people in the United States right now, and it’s the same kind of issues, like identity and fault.”
Both Everett and Freno hope the exhibition helps spark conversations, ones that will live on as visitors to campus learn more about Scene/Unseen.
Scene/Unseen runs through December 16, 2017. A formal opening tour for the exhibition will be held for local groups and organizations on Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. The tour will start on the Berman Museum steps. Professors Everett and Freno are also available for tours and to facilitate classes on the subject. Additionally, the Ursinus College website has a map depicting the location of all nineteen pieces and an Educators’ Guide that connects Scene/Unseen with the Common Intellectual Experience curriculum at https://www.ursinus.edu/about/sceneunseen/map/.