My love of history has its roots in a particular book that I read as a child: The Diary of Anne Frank. Around my ninth birthday, I received the book as a gift. I don’t recall my exact reactions to specific details in the book, nor do I remember having any prior knowledge of the Holocaust at that age. But what I do know is this: Reading that diary sparked not only a love of history, but a desire to hear the voices of the victims and the individuals who experienced the Holocaust. This is what drives me to study modern Germany history to this day.
I have always been drawn to film and photography; The first photographs from this period that struck me were a series of images from the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, which I encountered as a high school freshman in a book about the camp. I was shocked by what they showed, and confronted by the historical truth they seemed to possess. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college as a Research Rookie that I began critically thinking about what these images mean, and how they have been used in history. Through a project that comparatively analyzed WWII official and unofficial photographs by German soldiers, I discovered that many scholars assume that these photographs somehow “embody” Nazi ideology and are therefore tainted by it. Questioning this assumption is what led to this current project.
As I wrote about in a previous blog post, this project aims to situate German WWII images in terms of their continuities (and discontinuities) with pre-1933 German and broader European photographic trends. Why study photographs in such detail? In one way, scholars have considered the 1933-1945 period an exceptionally unique moment in German history, and in many ways it was. However, this period did not just spring out of nowhere – it developed, grew, and evolved from already established cultural norms and attitudes. Tracing the continuities and discontinuities of German and international visual culture through German WWII photographs will help us better understand what persevered after 1933, and what dramatically changed.
We also live in an era dominated by visuals. We are bombarded visuals and rely on them to consume information or understand a concept, from photographs, to film, to infographics; often this leaves us to take images for face value. By understanding the nuances of photography from such a destructive period, I hope that we can similarly understand and critically contemplate the images we see coming from conflict today.