We spent a long time dissecting this photo of Lewis Payne, taken shortly before his execution for the attempted assassination of the Secretary of State, in class a few weeks back.
Our discussion ranged from “omg he’s such a lil’ cutie” to “look at how the light separates his face, could that speak to the division between life and death in the moment of this photograph?”
I had never seen it before, and processing the photo organically with my classmates was an enriching experience. When we were asked if our view of the photo changed at all when we discovered why it was taken, I really had to say “no.” This man had attempted to commit a crime, and although he was handsome, he would be dead by now anyway….and I really needed to get a hold on myself. Nonetheless, this captured moment, one of his last, was still rather chilling.
Yet although the photo was kind of creepy, we still felt comfortable cracking jokes about his model-looks, hence my creation of the following photos:
The day after class, I found this image of young Istvan Reiner as I scrolled through Tumblr (I’m linking to the photo, as opposed to posting it, as I am unsure about the copyrights).
“Aw, what a cute little kid,” I thought, scrolling further down to read the tags, but there weren’t any.
I searched Google for the image, and pulled up multiple Twitter and Pinterest accounts which all had the same shocking assertion: that the photo was taken in the days before the little boy’s untimely death. I knew this couldn’t be true, but when I looked closer, what I assumed were pajamas could actually be prison clothes.
Yet I still didn’t want to take social media posts as a real source, so I kept looking, still hoping that this little boy wasn’t actually murdered in a concentration camp. But when I found the image in the photo archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, that hope was gone, as they said it was “taken shortly before he was killed in Auschwitz” (source).
Knowing the origin of this photo inspired so many more feelings than James’. Although both boys are “cute” it’s in really different ways. When we were told that Lewis was being sent to his death, there was a momentary dip in my feelings, but it didn’t really change the way I looked at him, but for Istvan, it was different.
This child committed no crime. He was innocent. Innocent of both guilt and the knowledge that his death was approaching. It’s the glee in his eyes that makes his photo even more haunting. He doesn’t know.
It’s knowledge, I think, that really separates these two photos:the subject’s own knowledge of their impending death, the viewer knowing the reasons for their subsequent executions.
Both lives were taken too soon, but I think that Istvan’s photo, because of his age and innocence, demands more reverence.
What do you think?