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The sheer monstrosity of the Holocaust and World War 2 have attracted a lot of attention and continue to do so. While Germany’s engagement with this part of its own history is laudable, it comes at a price, though. For example, recently a fierce discussion has broken out over how to deal with the country’s prior genocide in what it now Namibia. Can that genocide seen as related in whatever form to the Holocaust, or is the latter sui generis? If you’re interested in these discussions, Jürgen Zimmerer’s Twitter feed provides a good starting point.

Godwin’s law states that as an online discussion evolves with time, so does the likelihood that someone (some organization) will be compared with Hitler (the Nazis). We’ve all seen this in action more than once. Given the aforementioned monstrosities that then is the (often intended) end of the discussion. But to understand or use Hitler and his rise to power with the vantage point of 1945 unfortunately runs this risk of shutting off possible insight that can be had.

After all, Hitler acquired power in a democratic fashion. Without the support of German conservatives, he would have been unable to form a government in 1933. Whatever you can say about his conduct in power, there are possible lessons to be learned from how democracy imploded at the end of the Weimar Republic, lessons that people might want to look into more seriously these days.

In addition, popular culture unfortunately has created a veil of cartoonishness around Hitler and the other Nazis. While they were thoroughly evil, the cartoonishness prevents a deeper understanding of their ideas and motivations, however deluded, racist, and evil they might have been. Much like the United States’ Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff pointed out when faced with a gotcha question by some Republican representative who intended to smear the Secretary of Defense, attempting to understand ideas and motivations does not mean to condone them (you want to watch that video if you haven’t seen it, yet): “I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.”

There are many aspects of the Nazis that it is tempting to describe as cartoonish. Many of those aspects are especially visible in the early years of Nazi Germany — way before World War 2 and the Holocaust. That these aspects already coexisted with concentration camps should not prevent us from looking into them.

If you visit Germany, you’ll have a hard time finding major Nazi-era buildings. German cities were heavily bombed during World War 2, so many of them simply were destroyed (and obviously not rebuilt). Well-known example you can still see include Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the building that now houses Germany’s finance ministry, or Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum — originally built by the Nazis to showcase what they thought of as “German art”.

In Nuremberg, you have the massive Nazi party rally grounds that you’re probably familiar with from pictures. But there also exist a number of other outdoor locations that I had ever heard of until I was sent the book Thingstätten by its editor and main contributor, Katharina Bosse (full disclosure: the book is published by Kerber Verlag, which also published my own book Vaterland).

Up until I saw the book, I didn’t even know that Thingstätten was a German word. “A Thingspiel (plural Thingspiele) was a kind of multi-disciplinary outdoor theatre performance which enjoyed brief popularity in pre-war Nazi Germany during the 1930s.” Wikipedia tells me.

Unfortunately, in the context of art “multi-disciplinary outdoor theatre performance” sounds somewhat interesting. Lest you get excited, Wikipedia clarifies: “The idea of the Thingspiel movement was that the Volk would gather for völkisch meetings and for theatre and propaganda presentations.” The word völkisch here refers to ideas that in the context of contemporary Germany appear around members of the far-right/neo-fascist AfD party. The US equivalent of völkisch would be MAGA.

But there is more, given that the actual idea of Thingspiele is based on an insane hodgepodge of mostly pretend-historical ideas from a larger German history. One of the Nazis’ biggest problems was that they thought they needed to create a form of Germany that was glorious, yet mostly untethered from the actual Germany at hand. For example, they didn’t want to work with the church, so they came up with neo-pagan concepts.

What is more, there clearly was no empirical basis for their ideas of how or why the German people were special (just in case you’re wondering, there is no such basis for any country, however exceptional it might think it is). Consequently, they either made stuff up (which is not that dissimilar to how colonial powers typically justified their deeds) or used somewhat dubious historical sources such as Tacitus’ Germania for their purposes.

Bosse and her collaborators visited three dozen still existing Thingstätten in Germany, Poland, and Russia (the full list of contributors: Katharina Bosse, Rebecca Budde de Cancino, Doug Fitch, Jan Merlin Friedrich, Jakob Ganslmeier, Andrea Grützner, Rebecca Hackemann, Konstantin Karchevskiy, Hendrik Lüders, Daniel Mirer, Felix Nürmberger, Ralph Pache, Abhijit Pal, Philipp Robien, Jewgeni Roppel, Simon Schubert, Kuno Seltmann, Erica Shires, Thomas Wrede; some of these locations can now be found in places that were German before the end of World War 2 but then became parts of other countries).

In addition to photographs of these often very odd looking outdoor amphitheaters, a variety of historical materials are included (lots of Nazi-era postcards). Plus, there is ample text that provides the background of each location.

This makes for interesting material — not just for Germans, because it reveals a government’s attempt to essentially create a parallel Universe that is then taken as the actual one (this might sound familiar to you if you live in a place where there is a strong far-right party, such as, for example, the US, France, Poland, Hungary, India, etc.).

Thingstätten is a great example of what a deeply researched photobook can offer. What is more, the interdisciplinary mix of contributors demonstrates what can be gained by photographers when they collaborate with writers and other artists. Even though such books by definition ask for a larger investment of time, this investment pays off handsomely (my apologies for the neoliberal phraseology here).

Beyond the context of early Nazi Germany, the book speaks of contested state ideologies and the role of wishful thinking and outright delusion rooted in a racist background. It is up to us to learn our lessons from this part of history to be able to identify the same toxic combination in our contemporary midst.

Thingstätten; edicted by Katharina Bosse; photographs and other contributions by Katharina Bosse, Rebecca Budde de Cancino, Doug Fitch, Jan Merlin Friedrich, Jakob Ganslmeier, Andrea Grützner, Rebecca Hackemann, Konstantin Karchevskiy, Hendrik Lüders, Daniel Mirer, Felix Nürmberger, Ralph Pache, Abhijit Pal, Philipp Robien, Jewgeni Roppel, Simon Schubert, Kuno Seltmann, Erica Shires, Thomas Wrede; 256 pages; Kerber Verlag; 2020

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Cai Dongdong’s History of Life

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When I first came across Cai Dongdong‘s photographs and installations, they felt like a breath of fresh air to me. The works were all based on what looked like archival or vernacular pictures from China, and Dongdong had either Photoshopped them or turned them into three-dimensional objects.

For example, a photograph of some target practice with guns had been enlarged, put into a beautiful wooden frame, and there was an arrow sticking out from it. While the instructor in the original photograph was pointing at the target, the arrow had missed it, instead sticking out from the center of the frame (you can see a photograph of the object here).

Many of the works I saw in a gallery in New York City a few years ago centered on photography itself: the act of aiming your camera, of “shooting”. A little camera might be placed in front of a scene, as if to make this the subject: how our view of the world is shaped by our choices when operating a camera.

But there also were other photographs that, for a lack of a better reference, evoked the spirit of German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann to me. There is a strong sense of pranksterism in a lot of Feldmann’s work, especially in the older one. At some stage, I attended a discussion between him and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Feldmann insisted in interrupting what the Swiss curator had intended to be a serious conversation, to read short advice to camera operators from old photography manuals. Seeing Obrist attempt to grin his way through short bursts of essentially dad jokes was quite something.

Having seen the exhibition, I wondered about Dongdong’s source material. Either there was a huge trove of simply incredible material available in China or the artist must have collected huge numbers of pictures, to extract the few images suitable for his work. I suspected it would be the latter because that’s how it goes with vernacular photography. But I had no conformation until I read the short essay at the end of History of Life, a new photobook published by Imageless. “The photographs in this book were selected from around 600,00 images I collected over the years.” Cai Dongdong writes.

When I first read the description of the book — it has 415 photographs on 500 pages, I was slightly hesitant: That’s a lot of pictures. How can one look at so many pictures? The answer is provided by the book itself: one can. I had worried this would feel like too many pictures, but somehow, that problem never arose for me.

To all those students who ever asked me: yes, you can make a photobook with hundreds of pictures, and yes, that can work very well. But, and this is merely repeating in writing what I’ve been saying for the past decade or so, you will have to edit it very, very well, lest the viewer run out of steam going through the book.

“The selected photographs span nearly one hundred years,” Dongdong writes, and a little further down in the text: “The main narrative thread of this book is the birth and growth of three generations. Their lives spanned three different historical period; each period is represented in this book’s three chapters.” Consequently, as a viewer you don’t have to look at the whole book in one go. However, I strongly suggest to read the chapters in one sitting each, because there is a strong narrative thread in each one of them.

I wasn’t joking when I wrote that one needs to read the work. With its large variety of vernacular material, the connections between neighbouring photographs are extremely important: a viewer who focuses too much on, let’s say, the different aesthetics is likely going to miss what’s going on in the book.

Beyond the sequence (which in itself makes for masterclass material), the many pairings on spreads operate along a number of strategies. Two photographs next to each other can do all kinds of things, depending on whether they connect formally, through content, or both. In the book, it is the variety of approaches used that prevents the viewer from getting tired. Instead, the story propels forward, while variations in themes and ideas, combined with the occasional wit (I suppose Dongdong just couldn’t help himself — I like this so much) keep the viewer engaged.

And so the recent history of China unfolds, a history that features a number of different political regimes, with added periods in the current — Communist — one (let’s not go into how a country that’s as hypercapitalist as capitalism’s spiritual home, the US, is not really Communist). Familiarity with written history itself is not needed — I personally am aware of the basic markers in time, but I don’t know too many details.

History of Life, after all, is not called History of China. It is the history of the country only in the sense that such a history imposes itself on private, personal life (which happened to varying degrees over the past century). Instead, it is a history of three generations as told through the photographic artefacts they left behind.

I suspect that a viewer in China might read the book differently than I do, picking up on a lot of details that I’m missing. But art wouldn’t be art if it didn’t connect us to our shared humanity (if you wanted an answer why conservatives and especially neo-fascists don’t like funding the arts, here it is). It is exactly that idea that allows viewers outside of China access to what is on view.

In some ways, the book reminds me of the late German writer Walter Kempowski‘s Echolot project, in which he re-narrated specific periods of time during World War 2 by assembling testimonies written by a huge variety of people (letters, diary entries, etc.). What shines through isn’t so much the larger history, which unfolds very slowly. Instead, Echolot presents a huge chorus of voices whose combined sound speaks of how far what we think of as history is from daily, lived experience.

For Cai Dongdong to have done something similar with photographs in History of Life is nothing but extraordinary.

Highly recommended.

History of Life; vernacular photography edited by Cai Dongdong; essay by Cai Dongdong; 500 pages; Imageless; 2021

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Angelus Novus

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After his mother had died, Roland Barthes wrote a book about photography, based on his own coming to terms with his grief (Camera Lucida). In a variety of ways, it’s not really a book that talks about photography per se. Instead, it centres on what we expect from photography, on what we do with photographs, on how we engage with photographs.

There are two aspects of the book that are more widely known. First, there is Barthes’ definition of what he calls studium and punctum. People mostly remember the latter, which is defined in a rather murky fashion in the book: we all know what he means, but I suspect that we’d all struggle to clearly say what it really is. (I’ll get to the second major aspect a little bit later.)

What it is, though, is this: it’s a projection of our expectations onto photographs. How could it be that, you might ask, given that there is an element of surprise built in the concept? Well, that is the expectation: the delivery of the surprise.

A photographs without a punctum simply falls outside of what we would consider, were we to follow Barthes. We all know the pictures that don’t deliver a punctum: they’re boring pictures, pictures we don’t consider, pictures that deliver the expected (even as this is a very different type of expectation — this one is in the picture, the one I mentioned previously is outside of the world of pictures).

Starting in early January, I decided I would take a photograph of the window next to the bed I wake up in the morning, at the earliest moment when I remember to do so. I basically make the same picture every day. Of course, every picture is different because they days are different. That means that the weather and the light are different, as are the folds in the curtains, and sometimes, a cat will jump into the window.

I’m using my phone for these pictures (some HDR app that makes it easier), because in the end, what I’m interested in has nothing to do with the pictures — and everything with myself. I’m interested in challenging my idea of what a good picture looks like and what a picture might mean when it exists alongside a large number of other ones that are almost identical.

You might note that I could just step outside and press the shutter button on my DSLR, to have it take dozens of variations of the same picture. You’re right in some ways. But I don’t want to be quite as flippant about my little assignment. Also, what I’m after is something that I might learn with time — if, that is, there is something to be learned. (I feel there is.)

After all, I know what every picture will look like (even as there are differences in details), and I also know that I’m not particularly interested in any single picture. But it is exactly this aspect of photography that I want to challenge: the insistence on the single picture (which derives from our idea that every moment is unique).

What happens when I make a lot of not-very-interesting pictures that are as identical as they can be, while they’re separate in a way that is unique to me (and only to me)?

In his book, Barthes describes going through photographs of his mother, looking for just the right picture, the one that would show him the way he saw her: a confirmation that the beloved person who is now gone was indeed the person that he remembers. That memory now appears to be under threat by his grief, so a photograph is needed to anchor it.

Writing about a number of pictures (not all of them of his mother), Barthes focuses on the second aspect of Camera Lucida that is frequently brought up. You can find a succinct version of it as a caption of Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne: “he is dead and he is going to die” (it’s on page 95 in the 2010 Hill and Wang paperback). A few pages earlier, he calls “[a]ll those young photographers who are at work in the world” this: “agents of Death” (I’ve always found the inclusion of the adjective “young”curious, and yes, death with a capital d, on page 92).

If I were to rummage through photographs of a person whose recent death I’d be grieving, I might find myself describing all the various people responsible for those pictures that, too: agents of death (even if they are now dead themselves). Barthes’ idea ties in with how photography is often used, namely to take a picture of something to make sure we have at least a record of it once it’s gone.

But you only need such a record if you think or feel that it’s bad that what existed at some moment in time is now gone. After all, that is the relentless path of the Universe: it shifts forever, with the arrow of time pointing into a future. For each one of us there is that point in time when we will die.

Photography is often seen as a way to counter this fact. We take pictures to hold on to things. The idea to photograph the window after waking up was set up for this as well: to create a special moment out of the many ordinary moments in my life — and to, ideally (we’ll see how this goes), transcend the idea.

Any moment in life can be made at least somewhat special through it being assigned the production of a photograph, even as usually, the picture taking is tied to a moment that already is special.

It’s like the relationship between the food and the bell for Pavlov’s dog. If there is a bell rung (a picture taken) when there is food (a special moment), then the dog (me) is conditioned to expect food (a special moment) when the bell is rung (a picture is taken).

Like most photographers, I am familiar with the feeling of having missed a picture. Talk to any photographer and ask them about it, and they will inevitably tell you the most fantastic story. It is as if the fact that the picture wasn’t taken or couldn’t be taken or simply didn’t come out charges up the moment even more. If only… However, one might suspect that if the picture had come into existence, it might not have delivered its now undeliverable promise, with another unavailable picture taking its place.

Much like there always is another picture of my window (I’m still young enough to make the assumption that I will not die any time soon, even though of course I can’t know), there always is another picture for any given situation. That situation will then be a little bit different, but (again), this it the relentless path of the Universe: what is today will not be any longer tomorrow.

Clinging to photographs doesn’t change this basic fact one bit.

Clinging to photographs as tokens of what is at some point and then later is no more reduces life to its past. This is what Walter Benjamin wrote about when he referred to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

While we can’t see into the future, our obsession with the past — as exemplified by ossified visual tokens of people and events we hold dear — prevents us from engaging with the present as something that we experience as what it is: not raw material for future mourning, but moments as they are, however precious or mundane they might be.

There is no reason why photographs should only exist in the Angelus Novus form. But it’s upon us to develop an understanding of what photographs are and can do that allows us to access other ways of engagement — with photography, but especially with life itself.

Meanwhile, I will continue to photograph the window every day.

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Photography and State Violence

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Over the course of its history, photography has been serving oppressors and liberators equally. The machine doesn’t care what it is being used for. Seen that way, it finds its place in the history of what think of as progress: that long march towards a future governed by technology, technocrats, and scientific advancements.

All over the world, we can see photographs being made and used in the context of struggles. In the US, bystanders film a group of cops as they murder an unarmed Black man while the cops’ own “body cameras” record the very same act — as do various surveillance cameras in the neighbourhood. Very similar scenes play out in Belarus, as protestors voice their disapproval of its country’s dictator having stolen the last election. They record while they’re being recorded. Anywhere you move on the globe you now encounter the very same setup.

Time and again, we witness how the presence or absence of photographs is not the deciding factor that determines the outcome of a struggle. Derek Chauvin was sentenced for the murder of George Floyd, but the list of police officers who got away with similar killings is too long to list here. What we’re talking about here thus must not be centred on photography: it must be centred on everything that comes before — the larger environment pictures are being produced in — and on everything that comes after — the environment in which the fight over what constitutes truth plays out.

Consequently, it is naive to expect of photographs to change the world, actually to change anything for that matter. The presence of a picture cannot compared to the presence of, let’s say, a vaccine against Covid that will protect you from getting very ill. Vaccines produce antibodies. Photographs produce nothing.

Still, photographs are very important in the process of a struggle. They strongly express the conditions in which the struggle plays out, and they shine a light (albeit a weak one) on the conversations that are being had around the struggle. This might not seem like much. But I would argue that because of this, photography actually has a lot more power than we think it has — it’s just not the power to change the world (that’s up to us).

I want to use a recent publication of photographs taken from the archives of the Communist regime in Poland, now housed in the Institute of National Remembrance, as an example. The publication is called How to Look Natural in Photos, and it was edited by Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica.

It’s a book that comes with the temptation to treat it as if it were about the past, in this case the totalitarian regime in Poland. It is possible to look at the book and shake one’s head about the evils of Communist Poland’s secret service. But it also is a book about the present, especially in light of the country’s far-right government’s various mechanisms to politicise memory to create a very specific idea of what Poland was and is (and, crucially, is not). The archive, in other words, is not entirely innocent, given the government is working very hard on reframing the country’s history.

But I’d go even further and claim that the book is not just about Poland at all. What is depicted might have happened in Poland, but it speaks of the uses and abuses of photography by those in power in general: this is a book about the violence committed by and with photography, a violence that the medium derives from the violence of those in whose employ it is.

Photography’s violence is always inherited or transferred: the violence is never one of the medium per se, it’s the violence of its use. A camera, after all, is merely a tool that can be used in a variety of ways — whether to contribute to an exercise of violence or to fight against such violence (please note that with “violence” I mean both physical and structural violence).

As one might expect from a secret-service archive, the photographs in How to Look Natural in Photos are functional and evidentiary. They were not made to be anything else. Consequently, where there is beauty in them, that beauty is accidental. Where they strike the viewer as funny, that is accidental. Where they are grim, that is accidental, too.

I would argue that the key to working with such state archives is to find a way to reveal the (structural) state violence that expresses itself in the pictures. After all, focusing only on the beautiful or funny or grim already deflects from the complexity of the violence that produced the pictures. But such an approach also shields existing state structures from being indirectly exposed. There could always be the deflection: “sure, but these pictures are from Poland, so what does this have to do with us?”

I suspect that deflection might always be invoked. But anyone interested in looking at how photography can reflect state power will find rich fodder in the book. Given there is no text next to the pictures, they operate in much the same fashion as in the now classical model established by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Anyone interested in learning more about the pictures will find the index useful. Furthermore, there is a detailed essay by Tomasz Stempowski about the photography in its own context.

Anyone looking through the book might want to ask themselves what contemporary equivalents are being made right now, wherever they might live, how, in other words, their own state exercises its power.

It’s much too simplistic to insist on differences between democracies and dictatorships, when underneath the hood, state apparatuses have a lot more in common than we would like to think. If a citizen gets killed by the police without subsequent accountability, it doesn’t matter much whether we’re dealing with a democracy or a dictatorship. This is not to fully equate democracies with dictatorships; the difference is that in a democracy, its citizens can demand accountability.

So for those living in a democracy and wishing to maintain it, there’s work to do. It’s a lot of work, and it requires a lot of time. Democracies need to be maintained by its citizens.

Maintaining a democracy entails looking at how power is exercised by those who were either elected or who got a job that comes with power: how are they using photography? What does their use of photography and their way of dealing with photographs express about how they view their own power? This can easily get one into uncomfortable territory.

But democracy cannot be defended from the comfort of one’s own (privileged) position. It must be defended actively, and that defence includes making pictures as much as looking at pictures made by the powerful. This is why and how photography matters.


How to Look Natural in Photos; photographs from the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, edited by Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica; 304 pages; Palm* Studios & Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych; 2021

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.