LCVA began exhibiting work on Thursday.
It has now been 72 years since the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by Allied forces, and Richmond-based photographer Dean Whitbeck is helping to tell the stories of some of the survivors that are still around. His work is now on display at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, where visitors can see 25 of his portraits, each of a different survivor from the Richmond area.
Whitbeck is a former high school teacher from California, who became a photographer dedicated to showcasing people from disadvantaged communities.
He started photography work when he was a history teacher at an inner city high school in California, and he found that taking the students’ pictures increased their self-esteem.
“I guess ‘freelance’ is an accurate word to describe the work I do,” said Whitbeck. “I’m a project-based documentarian photographer; I seek projects where I can engage communities through photography.”
Whitbeck said he seeks out various different types of entities to work with, such as nonprofits, governments and corporations. Other work of his focuses on refugees, including refugees from the Syrian Civil War and those fleeing political violence in Somalia.
One of his previous funders worked for the Jewish Federation of Richmond; he asked Whitbeck to take these pictures to commemorate this 70th anniversary as part of a city-wide education campaign. The project took 15 months, involving efforts from the Weinstein Jewish Community Center and the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
Like much of the southern United States, the Richmond area has an unusually large number of Holocaust survivors. Whitbeck says that this is because the close-knit community of Holocaust survivors migrated there to avoid the oversaturation of workers in places like New York City, who created a lack of employment options.
“Richmond became a really interesting place back in the mid to late 50s,” Whitbeck said. “Because there was so much opportunity here.”
The Virginia Holocaust Museum had a database of the names of Holocaust survivors in the area, so it was easy for them to find subjects for Whitbeck’s work. Whitbeck describes the Jewish community in Richmond as “very tight and very profound.”
All of the pictures are close up portraits of the subjects, and all are printed in sepia. However, no two pictures are the same. Whitbeck pointed out that the way the subjects look at the camera often reveal something about them.
“This gentleman,” said Whitbeck, pointing to a picture of a man looking away from the camera, “never really looked me in the eye … and I recognized that was his comfort zone.”
Almost all of the pictures … were similar in that (way),” he added. “As much as I tried to get him to look at me, there was a lot of aversion.” Whitbeck says that this subject’s focus was not “based around as much of a curatorial position, as it was just a sense of where he was.”
On the left was a photograph of a man looking directly at the camera.
“I was able to get him to do that, there are plenty of other photographs where he did not, but we thought that … really spoke of his authenticity,” Whitbeck said.
To the left again was a man looking over his glasses at the camera. “This gentleman here, who’s looking down, he did that a lot,” said Whitbeck, who explained that this the only way man could see at such a short distance.
“He’s a doctor of psychology, and he has almost this Freudian look to him when he would talk to me, like I was the student,” Whitbeck said, referring to the late Dr. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. “He always looked me dead in the eyes, like he was trying to exact some kind of truth from me.”
The sepia filter was settled on by the funders in post-production. Whitbeck said this is because it gave a historic feel to the pictures, but also a sense of looking to the future.
“It was something that (the community) felt would be really beautiful,” he said. “And the tone was an archival sense, but the process of doing it digitally was a very forward process.”