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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.

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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Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher

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