School of Education

Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism

We are delighted to announce the award of an AHRC project grant on “Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism”

The award is for £711,752.00, plus match funding from the University of Nottingham for two museum sector curatorial placements in the projects, the final conference, as well as significant match funding in terms of staff time contributions from our project partners, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum.

The team consists of CIs

Photographs crucially defined National Socialism (NS), for contemporaries as well as later generations. Yet outside some instances of formal propaganda, scholars have paid little attention to photos - with ethical consequences that continue to affect the ways we remember Nazism and its victims today. 

Millions of photos were taken in this period by hobbyist and casual photographers; an estimated 10% of Germans owned a camera in 1939, many more participated in the practice. These photos are records both of people's engagement with the dictatorship, and of their efforts to distance and separate themselves from it. They are evidence of the interaction between ideology and subjectivity, of politics and lived experience: materially, because many albums mixed personal photos and ideological artefacts, eg newspaper cuttings, and metaphorically, because many people positioned themselves in and through photos, as participants in public life under Nazism, at political events and rallies, in organised leisure programmes, child evacuations, volunteer and compulsory labour services, or in the war. Some photos also offer insights into alternate private worlds that individuals sought to construct as a refuge or a place of separation from politics. In the case of Jewish Germans, photos show different emotional dispositions, contracting social spaces, narratives of emigration and escape, or experiences of persecution, in ways that challenge the official photographic record. 

This project brings a range of methodological insights - from photographic history, political iconography, visual anthropology, from the study of ego-documents and the everyday lives of ideologies - to bear on understanding not just what these photos show, but also, how the practice of photography itself shaped political behaviours: taking photos prompted and enabled people to position themselves politically, to assert power over others, or to oppose the ideological hegemony of the regime. The team combines academic expertise in analysing photography under NS, especially in regard to the regime's marketing of 'private happiness' as a political reward, and for depicting and re-shaping occupied territories and their populations, with our track record in co-developing challenge-driven research questions with practitioners in the museum and education sectors specialising on NS and the Holocaust. 

We have refined and tested our approach in two pilot projects and publications, and are confident that the systematic analysis of our source base proposed here will yield significant results. We will present the findings in two monographs, devoted respectively to the personal photos of Germans included in the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, and the Jewish population excluded from it, in academic articles on in-between groups, such as the so-called 'ethnic Germans', and in publications devoted to the pedagogic opportunities created by this research. This project has important ethical implications for both the academic and public use of photos of the history of Nazism today. We shall work with our project partners, the National Holocaust Museum, and other professionals in museums and schools, to develop new pedagogies that draw on private photos reflecting the gaze of victims and that of the perpetrators. We will enable visitors and learners to view photographs - originally designed to de-humanise their subjects - to do the opposite.

To achieve these aims, we work as an interdisciplinary team: Umbach and Harvey, experts on the relationship between subjectivity and ideology among the different groups living under the NS regime; Mills, specialist in Holocaust education in schools; Benford, specialist in supporting museums to use digital technologies to engage visitors with difficult ethical issues; Necker, who has been involved in innovative exhibition designs for NS and Jewish histories; and Griffiths, project consultant, director of learning at the Holocaust Museum. 

Posted on Wednesday 24th May 2017

School of Education

University of Nottingham
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

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