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Photographs: An authentic glimpse of history?

Prof. Maiken Umbach discusses the problems of looking at images to access the past, focusing on Nazi photos of the Holocaust.
Hello, I’m here with Maiken, and in this video, we’re going to discuss how images shape our understandings of the past. So, Maiken, how do images help the historian to access history? I think it’s hard to overestimate the importance that images have in the way we imagine the past. So if we think further back in time– say, about the early modern period– what was that all about? Was it about splendid courts and kings posing in front of unimaginable riches, like Louis the 14th who built the fantastic palace of Versailles outside Paris. And that really shapes how people imagine the Ancien Regime and absolutism much more than any text of political theory or piece of legislation.
In the more recent past was the advent of the medium of photography and also film. That’s even more true. Photographs and film convey a sense of the sort of immediate, authentic access to the past. It almost feels like you’re there if you can watch it on a screen or look at it. As a historian of Nazi Germany, I’m particularly interested in that. Because the rise to power of the Nazis coincides with the medium of photography really taking off. Lots of technological inventions– the small hand-held cameras and so on– happening at this time. So you see a proliferation of the practise of photography amongst ordinary people.
So one of the things I work on are objects like this, millions of people making their own photo albums using photography to record their own family histories, but also how they sort of slot into public culture and political events of the time. But, of course, the Nazi regime was very conscious of this. They’re very media savvy. They’re using film and photography for propaganda purposes to portray their own agenda, that kind of image of the ideal, typical citizen. They want to nuture and create through their policies, and very crucially through the medium of photography. They like it because of its immediacy, its appeal to emotion rather than reason and argument.
Hitler himself is one of the most photographed personalities ever in history, and certainly the most photographed up to that point. He had a personal photographer with a large staff. Heinrich Hoffman, who took well over a million photographs of him, and he would hand-select every image that was cleared for publication– and there were lots of them. So he’d spend time almost every day going through photographs, and then they would appear not only in the press, but also in beautifully illustrated coffee table books and so on to give everybody that sense of an immediate encounter with the Fuhrer. And these images are absolutely central to how we remember, say, the personality of Hitler today.
So do you want to say a few more words about the particular problems that we encounter when we engage with this Nazi photography? They are propaganda images. They’re very consciously deployed, and we need to read them very carefully. We can’t assume just because they look so real that they are actually, objective depictions of what history really looked like. And one area that’s particularly important, I think, is around the Holocaust, the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazi regime, which was heavily photographed by official Nazi photographers.
And the problem that you get there, which isn’t specific to the Nazi regime, I think you get it in photography of lots of atrocities, human rights violations, but also other forms of humanitarian crisis and disaster, is that they frame the victims in a certain way and deprive them of agency. And that’s very much the intention. So it’s not about hiding the crimes, but it’s about framing them in a certain ideological way. So one example, Jurgen Stroop, who was the commandant who was in charge of the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto, himself commissioned official Nazi propaganda photographers to document this event.
In 1943, they decided to close down the ghetto, shoot all surviving Jews who are there, either on the spot, or take them straight to gas chambers. And Stroop then selected images from this body of photography from the day to make a photo album and three copies, a bit like this, with captions under each image. And he entitled it “The End of Jewish life in Europe.” One copy was dedicated to Hitler, one to Himmler, who was in charge of racial policy, and one to the historians of the future.
So the paradox that we’re looking at now is that when we see the Holocaust on television and Holocaust museums worldwide, some of the most frequently reproduced images come directly from the Stroop album. So we’re doing exactly, in a sense, what the Nazis told us to do. We’re taking their images as the historians of the future in order to imagine what they did in the past. So the question that follows, then, is how do we make these images useful? Can these images be useful for the historian? I think images are absolutely essential to accessing the past, and it would simply be silly not to use them at all.
We can’t, as well, leave that just to the popular imagination and not look at them critically. But we do need to bear these difficulties in mind. We can also, I think, read these images against the grain. So if I can come back, briefly, to the Holocaust example as an illustration of that. Images of people often, not always, but often involve the person who’s being photographed having some input into how the final image looked. So the photographer has a certain intention, but a person posing for the image brings their own intention to the process of image-making. So if you’re looking at photographs taken in ghettos where Jews were incarcerated, they’re often posing. They’re posing for the photographer.
And for them, that’s clearly a chance that they want to embrace, an opportunity to create an image of themselves, to have an image of themselves recorded. If you compare these images to those taken illicitly, illegally by Jewish photographers in the same situations in ghettos– that was banned, of course, but cameras were smuggled in. A lot of professional photographers were incarcerated there, Jewish photographers, they carried on taking images, and people pose in much the same way. So, for them, it’s not about the intention of the photographer, it’s about using that moment to create a historical record of themselves. And I think that’s true for many people.
Being photographed is an opportunity to leave that trace behind, particularly important in a sense of existential crisis and threat. If you’re not sure whether you’re going to survive, if you’re not sure whether you’ll be remembered at all, the regime will try to eradicate any trace of you, then leaving that photograph behind can actually be a positive thing, as paradoxical as that sounds. So when we look at images, I think we have to bear in mind these different intentions that produced them. And, therefore, we can also read different things out of them. We just need to be very careful in decoding these images. They don’t speak to us immediately. Thanks very much, Maiken.
I think you’ve given our learners lots of things to consider when they’re engaging with visual materials.

In this step, Maiken Umbach explores the role of images, and in particular, photography, in shaping our imagination of the past. Her key examples come from her own research project on photos of National Socialism. As in the case of Anti-Slavery we discussed previously, photos of the Holocaust, too, can be misleading. They appear as seductively authentic window onto this history. But, like other images of victims, they are also shaped by ideology.

Some of the photographs mentioned in this film will be discussed in more detail in the following text step. We will have a fuller discussion of the ethical problems of perpetrator photography then. But for the moment, we’d like you to reflect on a different question. Towards the end of this interview with Dean, Maiken raises a broader issue. When considering written sources, we are trained, as researchers, to ask critical questions about authorship. With each piece of written historical evidence, we will ask who the author was, and/or who commissioned a particular report, text, or memoir. When we evaluate it as evidence, we ask whose purpose the text served, and how the text reflects the author’s intentions, bias, aspirations. Much the same applies to photographs. And yet, Maiken suggests, photos are also different. In the making of a photograph, we often see an interplay of different intentions – those of the photographer, and those of the people being photographed. This raises interesting issues for the use of historical photography in our research.

Can you think of an example where a photographer may have pursued a particular goal by taking a photo, but those on the photo may have used this as an opportunity to communicate something quite different? And what of later uses? Do photos have authentic historical meanings, or is meaning constructed by the viewer?

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