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A picture of violence and degradation

Photographs are more than merely images of existing subjects. The photographer always makes decisions and has an enormous influence on what the viewer can see. The photographer can by no means exert control over everything, otherwise the photographs would be merely posed pictures. Photos of complex situations contain details that the photographer may not have intended to reveal at all. Photographs are extremely valuable resources, as they often contain information that is not available elsewhere. As Roland Barthes pointed out, the difference between photography and film with respect to other visual media, such as drawings, is that although a situation can be posed, it cannot merely take place inside the head of the individual who produces the image, but rather also must physically exist at some point in time.

It is absolutely essential to take a critical view of source material when it comes to violent images and war photographs. Photos taken by perpetrators are always an expression of a relationship that is characterized by an imbalance of power between photographers and their subjects. Prisoners in ghettos, concentration camps and extermination camps generally had no way of avoiding being photographed. Indeed, critics often point out that printing such photos runs the risk of reenacting the victims’ humiliation. In recent years, this has prompted writers to call on historians and publishers to give careful thought as to when and how they should display images of tormented people. Cornelia Brink uses a phrase to describe such images: “photographs against the will.”

Photograph from the collection of Dieter Schmid, courtesy of the Bremen Center for Political Education
Photograph from the collection of Dieter Schmid, courtesy of the Bremen Center for Political Education

The photo on the right does not show corpses or nakedness. Instead, it is a photograph taken by an ally of the perpetrators that shows a group of “normal” prisoners at work. At first glance, it is not shocking, yet it is without a doubt a “photograph against the will,” at least from the perspective of the prisoners. The picture was taken at the construction site of the gigantic “Valentin” submarine pen in Bremen-Farge, where thousands of civilian forced laborers, POWs, and concentration camp prisoners toiled. The Todt Organization commissioned a local photographer to document the progress made on this project and he took 968 photos. The photo stems from this body of work. The name of the photographer was Johann Seubert and he owned a photography studio in Bremen. He was also a policeman and was granted leave of absence from police duty to document progress on the project.

Interviews with former prisoners revealed an impression, however, that stood in stark contrast to the notion that the subjects see these images as reenacted acts of degradation. On the contrary, they felt that the photos failed to reveal the full extent of the degradation of the camps and the violence that was perpetrated against them. They said that they looked far too well fed and clothed, and that conditions had been much worse. Some even voiced their suspicion that the photos were staged and that the prisoners in the pictures were not even genuine, although this can be safely ruled out. With regard to the physical condition of the prisoners, it should be noted that most of the photos of the construction site were taken in the spring and summer of 1944. During that time, however, there was an extremely low incidence of fatalities in the camp, whereas it was exceedingly high during the winter of 1943/44 and the winter of 1944/45.

But what exactly can we see in the photos, and particularly in the image shown here? The photographs are generally of a professional quality and show that the photographer consciously selected his photo croppings and perspectives. He was primarily interested in the construction techniques. As a result, the laborers faded into the background as the photographer focused on the building methods. But the situation was not quite as clear-cut as one might think. The photographer granted the architects and the construction site managers a great deal of subjectivity and power in the photos. Their position of superiority is reflected in images where they interact with both the photographer and the camera, and strike various poses. The forced laborers, on the other hand, almost never look into the camera. This matches the photographer’s perspective. After all, he saw the prisoners not as individuals, but rather as cogs in a huge machine. The forced laborers existed only in their function as a workforce. The photo on the right stems from a series that shows how concrete was reinforced with steel before being raised to the roof of the bunker. This particular photo is unusual for this body of work because a concentration camp prisoner is clearly gazing into the camera.

The pictures of the construction site clearly do not aim to highlight differences between various status groups of forced laborers or between forced laborers and German workers. More importantly, there are no attempts here to portray concentration camp prisoners as “criminals” or as “subhumans,” as was often done with photo series from the early days of the concentration camps. Seubert photographed virtually all of the workers at the construction site in an equal manner, and he even took pictures of concentration camp prisoners in prominent positions. The visual emphasis and exultation of the architects directly matched the image that had come to be associated with this profession during the Weimar Republic. Seubert worked with image conventions that were by no means specifically associated with the Nazis. The reality of the construction site, though, was a specific expression of Nazi ideology: Thousands of forced laborers were coerced into building a submarine pen under German supervision. This is primarily reflected by the striped clothing worn by the workers. The other specific characteristic, namely the brutal force required to keep the prisoners working at a murderous pace, is blocked out of the photos.

Headline image: ‘Valentin’ submarine bunker by C.Mezzo-1. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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