The personal nature of portraiture is not lost on Luigi Toscano.
Reflecting on the last three years of his life — time the German photographer has spent travelling the world to interview and photograph Holocaust survivors — he focuses on the intimacy of the work. It’s nearly as tactile as it is visual; the nudge of a shoulder here, the gentle prod of a chin there. For Toscano, to photograph someone is to get to know them.
The culmination of those three years is on display until April 22 at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool: nearly 100 portraits of Holocaust survivors taken in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Israel and the United States. The project, “Lest We Forget,” was shown at the United Nations in January and is supported by the German Embassy and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A discussion about the exhibit and its corresponding book and movie will be held on April 19 at the Goethe Institute.
Through an interpreter, Toscano said that his “biggest fear is that at one point, people will just say, ‘Oh, those were the Nazis, it was a different time and it doesn’t relate to us, it doesn’t affect us. What do I have to do with it?’ I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Toscano has no known personal connection to the Holocaust. Growing up, he learned about the events in school, but it wasn’t until he took a trip to Auschwitz alone at 18 that he grew curious about the scale and cause of the genocide.
Then, years ago, he completed a project photographing refugees living in Europe. When he displayed the work in public spaces, he saw the impact his images could have when out in the world rather than behind closed doors at a museum.
At the same time, a far-right political movement was on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. In a matter of years, the far-right Alternative for Germany party went from missing the 5 percent vote threshold needed to sit in the parliament in 2015 to winning 95 seats in 2017. All the while, the party’s leaders flirted with anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and nationalistic rhetoric. One such leader, Alexander Gauland, said that Germans “don’t have to be held accountable anymore for those 12 years [of Nazi rule],” and that Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”
For Toscano, it added to the sense of urgency he already felt knowing that every year, fewer Holocaust survivors remain.
“Not only in Germany, but in other places in Europe you see this rise in anti-Semitism and racism and hate,” he says. “After everything that has happened, how does this continue? I wanted to make a statement against this and not stand by without saying anything, and this is [my] form of expression. … Germany is [my] home, and as Germans we have to take responsibility for what happened.”
In 2015, he met a woman named Marija Nasarenko in Kiev. She’d been a prisoner of the Germans from 1943 to 1945 but had never told her family the full extent of her story. So when she agreed to speak with Toscano, she invited them as well, and shared her experience with them for the first time.
They spoke for several tearful hours.
“The action of taking the picture wasn’t the thing that was important anymore,” Toscano says. “It was just the right moment at the right time at the end of her life to share the story with her family. It was very emotional.”
Nasarenko’s story, like many others, has stayed with Toscano. He says he’s suffered from insomnia for as long as he’s been working on the project, the result of more than 200 deeply personal encounters with survivors. But he has no plans to stop. The portraits will go on display elsewhere in North America this year, and he hopes to keep photographing survivors for as long as he can. Some of his subjects have already passed away, so he knows that time is of the essence.