Picturing the past: finding the right cover design for a challenging subject

Finding the right image for a book cover is a lengthy process, made even harder when the text deals with a difficult subject

A large wooden shed. An innocuous hulk of a thing, a windowless box. Nothing special. This is the photograph I’ve been looking for.

I’m working on a cover for a book about 21st-century documentary films on the Holocaust. This is the sort of brief one accepts with a furrowed brow – it’s a privilege to be able to work on such a project, but the subject matter is rather intimidating. As well as doing justice to the text itself, there is a responsibility to produce something sensitive to the delicate complexities of history.

It may be the tiniest thing, but even the cover of a historical text can affect how that history is interpreted. The past is a mutable, fragile place; too easily is it subjected to the crass, the clichéd and the exploitative. One must tread carefully.

My research has been a sobering experience, tentative tiptoes around the Holocaust. To begin with, the horror and shame of it all was overwhelming. Watching footage of the camps, reading details of the conditions, listening to first-hand accounts – it froze me. How can beauty be found in the darkness? How can anyone create anything that will ever do this justice?

Looking for usable images was a similarly crushing experience. Focussing my search on the dark tourist attractions of the concentration camps, I was met with the same familiar signifiers everywhere I looked. So many photographs of barbed wire and guard towers; those train tracks leading inexorably into that station, over and over.

I struggled. And I was aware that I had no right to. This was the smallest of problems to be faced with, and I was looking at countless horrendous things that reminded me of this. This was no time for creative angst. So I retreated from the problem for a while, spending time on other projects and poking other parts of my brain. What this needed was a completely irrelevant perspective, a random connection to present itself.

As is often the case, it was procrastination that led the way out of the mire. Because the world absolutely must hear about every second of my creative anguish, I mentioned my frustration on Twitter. One thing led to another, and soon enough I found myself being directed to the ‘Selfies at Serious Places’ Tumblr, specifically a picture of a chirpy young lad giving Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a big thumbs up. Bless him.

Looking past his shiny little smile, I instinctively honed in on the elegant simplicity of the memorial behind him, a vast grid of 2,700 concrete slabs. A creature of brutalist habit, I immediately became a bit obsessed with the Big Concrete Thing. I abandoned the camps and searched for photos, satellite images, blueprints, drive-by Googlings of this incredible place. I was getting somewhere! Nothing builds up a creative fervour quite like symbolic concrete.

I was almost there, I almost had it. Then it occurred to me that the grid of the Memorial echoes that of a plan of Auschwitz-Birkenau; a matrix of huts and stables and inhumanity. This abstract grid, stunning as it is, was too far removed from the subject matter. I had abandoned the camps too soon, but this was the new perspective I needed. I remembered a previously-dismissed photograph, a widescreen wooden facade, an amateur shot on Flickr: Pferdestallbaracken OKH-Typ 260/9.

One of many stable-barracks to be found at the former concentration camp, this prefabricated structure was designed to house a few dozen horses. But the design was misappropriated. Rather than shelter, it ended up as storage, a great wooden cage for hundreds upon hundreds of human prisoners. Seventy years later, and it is a discarded shell, a remnant of hate, a tourist attraction.

The utilitarian framework of that shed is a synecdoche of the awful truth at the heart of the Holocaust, the dark thread that runs through those documentary films and through the book: this was a ‘rational’ solution to a logistical problem.

This beautiful image of a terrible place, this is the photograph I’ve been looking for. It needs work – just a considered crop, an unobtrusive type treatment – but there is little more for me to do here. Sometimes finding the right image is all that’s required.

Design is tourism. With every brief, I get to visit other places, scrutinise obscure topics and dark history, bring back souvenirs. Every day I’m grateful for the freedom and opportunity to explore, to learn, to open my eyes and understand.

Still, it’s nice to be home.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. His cover for After the Fact by Brad Pager, which uses a photograph by Giulio Menna, is at danielgray.com. See also @gray

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