Photographs shape our memories. They capture events that have a personal or historical significance and help us to remember. But how can photography work as a bearer of memory if no images can be found for what we want to recall that do justice to what has happened? This thought went through Anton Kusters’s mind when he visited Auschwitz concentration camp for the first time in 2012. The Belgian photographer had only recently learned that his grandfather had narrowly escaped deportation by the German occupying forces during the Second World War. Consequently, questions such as where he might have been taken, and what would have happened to him, haunted Kusters and ultimately led him to Auschwitz. He was so overwhelmed by this place where more than a million people had been murdered, that it took him over an hour before he could enter the camp. Although Kusters had his camera with him the whole time, at the end of the day he had taken just one photo – of the clear blue sky. It was the only image that felt right for him, and was to become the central motif of a comprehensive study: “The Blue Skies Project”.
Kusters’s research lasted five years and took him throughout Europe, where he photographed the blue sky with his Polaroid camera at 1,078 locations – the number 1,078 representing the extraordinarily high number of concentration camps operated by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. Not only Jews, but also Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and members of the political opposition were detained here, forced to work and murdered. In the large camps like Auschwitz or Dachau, memorials remind us of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and above all commemorate their victims. But in most other places, especially the sites of smaller concentration camps, only very few traces of these former crimes remain. It cost Kusters time and effort to identify the exact location of the many lesser-known camps, but he knew that the project could only make sense if they were completely documented. He followed the same procedure for each motif: Once there, he waited for a cloudless sky, pointed his Polaroid camera upwards, and took three photos. On the lower left edge of the Polaroid, he then stamped the GPS coordinates of the concentration camp and the number of people who had died there. To commemorate those who had been murdered, Kusters supplemented his presentation of all 1,078 Polaroids with a soundscape by Dutch composer Ruben Samama.
“The Blue Skies Project” is a work about remembering and commemorating in which the sky represents a meaningful symbol, epitomising the feeling of endlessness and abstraction that accompanied Anton Kusters in his attempt to capture the indescribable. At all 1,078 sites of former concentration camps, the sky is and was present. For those imprisoned there, seeing it was probably one of the few things they were not denied – and that they associated with hope and a longing for freedom.
born in Hasselt, Belgium
graduates with a Master of Political Science from the University of Louvain
is shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize