Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

In an interview published in the newspaper El País (April 17, 2015), José Palazón, president of the nongovernmental organization “Prodein”, and winner of the XVIII Luis Valtueña Humanitarian Photography Award, remembers a conversation that he had with a prosecutor, twenty years ago, when he was denouncing the abuses against immigrants in Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Palazón complained that his efforts to gain visibility were not getting anywhere, to which the prosecutor replied: “Look for evidences. Take photographs”. Since then, it seems that Palazón has learned his lesson and the photograph “Desolate landscapes”, which he submitted to the Luis Valtueña photography competition has travelled around the world.

“Desolate landscapes” is an unusual reflection of the invisibility of undocumented immigrants, and the indifference to their suffering in developed countries. The contrast between the vulnerable location of a group of immigrants, precariously perched on the high border fence dividing Spain and Morocco, and the view of the luxurious golf course where two golfers are blithely immersed in their game is doubtlessly the ironical reflection of the evident failure of Spanish government as well as of European immigration policies to face and successfully deal with the immigration crisis from Africa.

In documentary photography, the question about who is taking the photograph is one of great significance. James Curtis explains: “If we are to determine the meaning of a documentary photograph we must begin by establishing the historical context for both the image and its creator. A documentary photographer is an historical actor bent upon communicating a message to an audience. Documentary photographs are more than expressions of artistic skill; they are conscious acts of persuasion”. 

The use of photographs to tell stories has accompanied photography since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century and has paralleled the evolution of independent journalism. Documentary photography has mirrored the desires of their audience as well as their prejudices (Curtis, ibidem). In a similar way, press photographs and propaganda images in war time ‘speak directly to the cultural concerns of the society at which they are directed, both in the subject chosen for representation and in the way those subjects are portrayed’ (Brothers 1997: 2).

In wartime, governments place great importance on graphical testimony. The control and use of the images, depending on the evolution of the conflict and the public support of the war effort are a key element in any propaganda campaign. In this sense, a high percentage of war photographs show carefully prepared scenes in which the participants posed for propaganda purposes. If the field of military history is one of the most productive in terms of primary sources for the study of wars, this is basically because military activity generates a lot of documentary work.

The analysis of war photographs must thus include the consideration of many signifying elements, not the least of which is the broader process of the production and distribution of images. David Simpson (2010: 13) observes that our current wars are highly mediated. He continues by saying that sometimes a portion of what is seen is taken without question as real, other times, some items “are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen”. 

The debate about the authenticity of war photographs has been recently in the news, though this time, in regards to allegations of criminal abuse by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. On January 20, 2014, CNN and The Guardian reported that a team of internationally renowned war crimes experts had found direct evidence of systematic torture and killing in Syrian prisons. The report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies, is the testimony of a Syrian government defector codenamed “Caesar”, who during his secret work with a Syrian opposition group, smuggled out the photographs and fled the country. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police. When the war broke out, his work consisted of taking photographs of allegedly murdered detainees. 

In conversation with the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Tepperman (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. Vol.94. No.2, 58-65), Bashar al-Assad called into question the irrefutable evidence of such images of terrible torture and abuse. He stated: “None of these allegations that you mentioned are concrete; all of them are allegations. You can bring photos from anyone and say this is torture. Who took the pictures? Who is he? Nobody knows. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence”. 

When Jonathan Tepperman mentioned that Caesar’s photos had been looked at by independent investigators, the Syrian President replied: “No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven. The pictures are not clear which person they show. They’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls. Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?”   

In his political interest, it makes perfect sense for the Syrian President to repeatedly deny any responsibility for these deaths. What is more striking, however, is the way his words evoke timeless issues which are never out of the limelight, such as the usefulness of photography as primary historical evidence and the ambiguity of photographic meaning.

The argument that the source is anonymous, and consequently the images might come from anywhere else the world is not conclusive. The point is that the author of the photographs is a witness. It can be a singular individual or a group of people. The photographs were “shot for the record” (Curtis, ibidem). They show an undeniable reality, which is currently the object of inquiry by independent experts. The images are disturbing because they record something that actually happened. In fact, they show one of the harshest realities of wars, and their authority is derived from that harshness. In this respect, they can be regarded as a special kind of raw material. Consequently, the photographer had no need to adopt an aesthetic agenda. This descriptive function of photography represents the main use of the medium when it is at the service of scientific and historical investigation.

However, it would be misleading to think that images that provide evidence are easy to understand. Their content is dependent on a network of technical information and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, even the most realistic photograph can be manipulated “according to a variety of contextualizing factors, such as caption and layout, which may be outside the photographer’s control” (Ritchin 1999: 89). In this sense, the demand for verification on the part of the Syrian President is logical though extremely awkward.

The question about how an image is to be understood is also crucial in the area of our research interest, namely, the contemporary history of interpreting. When wartime interpreters are studied as photographic subjects (Fernández Sánchez, 2014), one should always bear in mind that most of the photographs were taken on commission for the government or for press agencies. In these cases, captions, dates, and information concerning the publication are vital in order to be able to correctly read the photographs. Through the photographic image, interpreters and interpreting experiences have become visible. These language intermediaries were present in historical events and in different settings, which contributes to document an important dimension of armed conflicts that often goes unnoticed. 

Today, the increasing ubiquity of images from civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and terrorism  also focus on local translators and interpreters, or “fixers”, as witnesses and victims of war. Their role, their proximity to the local population and their low occupational status in many cases deserve a closer look.

References

Brothers, Caroline.1997. War and Photography. A Cultural History. London and New York: Routledge.

Curtis, James. 2003. “Making Sense of Documentary Photography”, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,  HYPERLINK “http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/.

Fernández Sánchez, María Manuela. 2014. “Interpreters in the Field: Friends or Foes?”. In Framing the Interpreter. Towards a visual perspective, edited by Anxo Fernández-Ocampo and Michaela Wolf. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 172-180.

Ritchin, Fred. 1999. In Our Own Image. The Coming Revolution in Photography. Aperture: New York.

Simpson, David. 2010. “Seen through the Loopholes”, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No 5, p. 13-14.

Freedom, coercion or torture? The political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps, 1941-1956

By Gianluca Cinelli

In all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour, brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948) by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of captives.

A mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).

On 13th July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September 1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany” because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000 German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.

In November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In 1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO. Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of witnesses.

One must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g. Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and peace.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than under the Nazi yoke.

The political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields. Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of 1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order to be spared from work and sent home.

In West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn, caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and justice.

In this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.

Torture is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.

For further reading

Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997

Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960

Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989

Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996