My Goal Since the Beginning Was to Individualize the Victims

Photo colorist Marina Amaral leads the digital Faces of Auschwitz project.

Marina Amaral Faces of Auschwitz

With every new generation, the memory of the Holocaust becomes more distant — a black-and-white atrocity from another century. Marina Amaral, an expert photo colorist from Brazil, believed she could help bridge that gap by using her digital and research skills — and partnered with the Auschwitz Museum to gain access to their archives.

The project she now leads, Faces of Auschwitz, gives access to stories of Holocaust victims in a visceral, moving way, highlighting their humanity — and the immensity of their loss. We recently spoke with Marina about the project’s origins and what she aims to accomplish with it.

How did you become aware of this collection of photos from Auschwitz, and what made you decide to start colorizing them?

I was looking for new photos to colorize back in 2016, when I encountered the portrait of Czeslawa Kwoka, the 14-year-old girl who was murdered in Auschwitz. The expression on her face absolutely shocked me, and I had no doubt in my mind that I needed to colorize it. I knew there were other photographs, but that was the only one in the public domain, which allowed me to colorize and post it online.

The photograph and her story went viral all across the world when the Auschwitz Museum reposted the colorized version on their Twitter account this year, and I was suddenly giving interviews to TV stations from all different parts of the world to talk about Czeslawa and her photograph. I got approached by teachers interested in incorporating the photo in their classes, and received thousands and thousands of messages from all kinds of people (including teenagers) who had no idea what the Holocaust actually represented up until the moment they saw her face in color for the first time. That was when I realized the potential hidden there.

How did this one colorized photo lead to launching the bigger project?

If a single photograph had provoked such an impact, I wondered what could be achieved, from an educational point of view, if I decided to colorize as many of those photographs as I could, publishing them on a website accompanied by as much personal information about the individual portrayed as we could possibly find. I presented the idea to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, and a few weeks later the Director gave me access to their archives, where almost 40,000 registration photographs are stored.

By colorizing their photographs, they become less abstract. They are no longer just representing something old, a historical event that happened so many years ago.
Marina Amaral

As a colorization specialist, what do you hope to achieve when you add color to old archive photos?

I think it’s very easy to get lost in the astonishing scale of the Holocaust, and to forget that each one among those huge numbers represents an individual human being who had a life that was destroyed by sheer bigotry and hate. The historian and Holocaust expert who is a volunteer in the project likes to say that there’s no such a thing as the Holocaust, but rather 12 million Holocausts, and I think that’s absolutely true. My goal since the beginning was to individualize the victims, to tell their stories, to give them a chance to “say” what happened to them, one way or another.

By colorizing their photographs, they become less abstract. They are no longer just representing something old, a historical event that happened so many years ago. They now have blue eyes, dark hair, maybe a scar on the face that went unnoticed in the black and white. Czeslawa had blood on her lips because a kapo had beaten her up just minutes before the photograph was taken. You can’t see this in the black and white unless you know the story. Now, the red is there to make you stop, wonder what happened, and go on our website to read her story. In color, they are mothers and fathers, sons, grandparents. They are as real as us — and what happened to them can not happen again.

Have you encountered any challenges specific to this project?

I find it particularly hard to work on this project because I know what happened to these people. I need to read their death certificates before I start to colorize their photographs, and I know that that was possibly the last photograph taken of them. I feel mentally drained after I finish, but I have so much passion for this task. I believe so much in what we are doing that it is all worth it in the end.

When someone visits the Faces of Auschwitz website, what do you hope they feel or learn by the time they leave?

Once people see a photo in color, they instantly become more open to receiving more information related to it — and that’s why I wanted to share the stories alongside the photographs. I wanted to show that the victims were not the numbers tattooed on their arms. They were teachers, musicians, actors, farmers, doctors, lawyers; they were married, they had children, they had dreams and ambitions and fears — and most importantly, they had (and have) a name. The website is an essential tool to allow us to achieve this goal.

From all the many photos and stories you’ve worked on as part of this project, is there any one in particular that has stayed with you?

Czeslawa’s photo is special to me because it was that photograph and the expression on her face that encouraged me to start this project. I never met her, but she became a very important part of my life.

What are your next steps for Faces of Auschwitz?

We spent three days filming a self-funded documentary in Auschwitz last October. We had the opportunity to visit many locations that are mentioned in the stories we published — buildings that are no longer open to the public, including the one where the photographs were taken. The documentary will be released next year.

To see the photos Marina has worked on (and the stories behind them) and to stay up-to-date on the project’s latest updates, visit the Faces of Auschwitz website and follow their Twitter account.

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