Photos can lie. It’s not a big revelation to us, but in the postwar world, people weren’t so sophisticated about media.
Photos are political too. After the war, photographers flooded into Germany to record the destruction and to give the world images of the German enemy. Allied photographers arrived with an agenda, or several at once. No doubt they wanted to show the truth of what they saw, to use photos to tell the story of Germany’s defeated state. They wanted to ask their audience at home to look at the photos and think about how these Germans could be the same people who caused the Holocaust. They wanted to show allied life, German life, and where they intersected.
I found a nice example of how photographers coped in a photographic history of the postwar Ruhr area (Bildberichte. Aus dem Ruhrgebiet der Nachkriegszeit) issued a few years back by what is now the excellent Ruhr Museum in Essen. Unfortunately, I can’t find these images on the web, so I’ll describe what’s on p. 71 and 72.
The British magazine Picture Post did a report on August 31, 1946 called “Europe can’t afford this Germany” (this is my translation of the title since my source only had the German). One photo is especially interesting:
The Girl without a boy, the soldiers without a girl. A woman in heels looks at a pair of allied soldiers who gaze into a shop window.
On the next page of the Ruhr Museum book are the negatives of the original images used later in the Picture Post article. In the original shots, the girl and the soldiers had nothing to do with each other. The girl is alone pausing in the street for one reason or another. You only see the back of her curled blond hair, her black heels and dark dress. The soldiers are window shopping and chatting in what was likely a different location, one of many brick buildings.
The photographer melded the two images to make a point. The girl in the montage is looking at the soldiers, who are at the moment more interested in what they see in the shop window. (As unlikely as that is!). The families of allied soldiers were concerned about the goings-on they heard about in Germany, a sexual freedom the boys likely didn’t have at home. The Girl Without a Boy photo sent a message of the pretty, available, perhaps even predatory German woman just waiting for the allied boys to notice her. The photo melded from two unrelated images was a small lie, and it became political.
It’s important to look critically at photos shot in postwar Germany. Remember what goals the photographer might have had, and keep the most basic modern attitude to media in mind — what you see might not be what it seems.
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2003-0703-500 / CC-BY-SA via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en Wikimedia Commons