What were they thinking? or Not so bad?

A colleague sent me this story from the Jewish Daily Forward: Amazon will no longer sell a 250-piece Jigsaw puzzle featuring a picture of Dachau Concentration Camp. The puzzle, marketed as appropriate for ages 8-and-up, met with objections from German legislators, as well as the head of the Dachau memorial.

I want to raise two points and I ask them honestly. I am not trying to be deliberately provocative.

1) I was struck by the comment that the head of the memorial wanted an investigation into whether prior sales of the puzzle were unlawful under German law, once again demonstrating how the U.S. departs from other countries on the subject of the freedom of speech. We can debate whether the puzzle is offensive or in bad tatse. But unlawful?

2)  Is this really that offensive? The picture was taken by Robert Harding, a well-known international travel photograph who has had many photos made into puzzles. He also has taken a number of photos of Dachau. The picture itself  is not disrespectful (at least reports don’t suggest that it is); it is an image of a historical place where something awful happened, something that we should remember. I assume no one would object to anyone selling the photograph (although maybe I am wrong on that).

It seems to me that puzzles are simply one way of creating or presenting a picture or photograph. There is nothing wrong with having that picture be somber or meaningful or emotional, as long as the picture created is respectful or tasteful. We have puzzles of great works of art; why not also of photos of historically significant places or events. There were comments in the story about a “toy” being a “trivialization” of the events there. But this is not Dachau action figures or Dachau trading cards. Perhaps it is inappropriate for children and eight is too young as the target audience for the puzzle. But the call was for a total ban on (and suggestion of illegality of) all sales, not just a change in marketing.

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5 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    It seems plausible to me that there’s an important difference between presenting the photo as a puzzle and simply doing so directly: solving a puzzle makes one’s engagement with the subject matter much more abstract than if one were taking the photo in as a whole. Of course, there’s nothing to guarantee that someone who looks at the photo will engage with it, either. And it’s certainly possible that someone who solves the puzzle will be moved or made reflective by the process. But the puzzle makes abstraction much more likely, because it actively engages people with issues irrelevant to the meaning of the photo. In this sense, I can see that the puzzle is a trivialization.

    Whether its sale should be illegal is a different issue. But Germany has long had very different standards on this point than the US. And who’s to say they haven’t been helpful — the resurgence of neo-Nazism there might have been much more energetic and precipitous in the absence of such restrictions.

  2. Jim Maloney says:

    AJ’s point about “trivialization” makes sense. Then again, like so much else, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I haven’t had time for a jigsaw puzzle in years, but I do remember noticing details in a different way…

    With Holocaust denial alive and well (now even endorsed by a head of state), it may be that anything that facilitates the principle of “never forget,” whether a serious memorial, a documentary film, or a jigsaw puzzle, is serving a noble purpose.

    Hypothetical: if Iran had banned the import or sale of these puzzles, would there be a tendency to condemn that action for quite a different reason?

  3. Joe says:

    I understand why someone might be particularly sensitive about this issue but agree that this is not a “trivialization” of the Holocaust or anything. AJ’s comments are interesting but also suggest a puzzle can in fact reduce its trivialization. And, does this mean a puzzle of some other very somber picture (one can think of various works of art that portrays certain events) trivializes it?

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    @Joe: Thanks for your comment. I acknowledge that for some, solving such a puzzle isn’t necessarily a trivializing experience; I spoke in terms of likelihoods, rather than absolutes. Also, this picture isn’t just a “very somber picture,” it is a highly politicized one, dealing with a genocide and hate crime. Compare a puzzle version of a photo of a lynching, of victims of the Rwandan genocide, etc. to one of, say, JFK’s funeral or Picasso’s “Guernica,” and it might be more apparent that not all somber pictures are created equal in the puzzle context.

    The political context is the key. For that matter, there might be some photos that become glorifications, rather than trivializations, when turned into a puzzle. E.g. photos of Hitler in his prime, or of Nazi swastika-laden regalia: I expect sale of these might be outlawed in Germany, too. #2Jim’s point about an Iranian ban on a Dachau puzzle illustrates this contextual sensitivity (though of course they could insist they’re doing it to spare the sensitivities of the thousands of Jews still living in Iran).

  5. Joe says:

    I was thinking of Guernica as an example.

    I also used qualifiers (“can”) to speak in terms of possibilities (likelihoods, if you like), not guarantees.

    I agree that the political angle can affect the debate and influence the law but on the issue of trivialization, that can be a concern when something is basically personal, not political as such. There still can be a concern of trivializing. Less might worry about it, of course.

    The issue of glorification … there are rules regarding Nazi memorabilia … I recall such things not being allowed on at least one auction site.

    I think it is notable that Robert Harding is involved — I don’t know him, but the OP suggests he is a serious artist / photographer and has photographed the subject in the past. Offense is subjective, but him being behind it matters. I appreciate the reply and it’s an important debate.