Department of History

Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism

Through analysing a large body of personal photos the project aims to:

  • understand how politics and lived experience intermingled
  • tackle the problem of the “perpetrator gaze” shaping our visual imagination of National Socialism and the Holocaust today
  • develop new exhibition designs, pedagogies, and a new Massive Online Open Course to bring other ways of seeing to the fore.
Professional Photography and Amateur Snapshots Conference

Project background

Photographs crucially defined National Socialism 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, e.g. 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. Our team combines academic expertise in analysing photography under National Socialism, 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'
  • 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.

Project team

This is an interdisplinary project bringing together experts in their respective fields.

Maiken Umbach

Elizabeth Harvey

Experts on the relationship between subjectivity and ideology among the different groups living under the NS regime

Gary Mills

Specialist in Holocaust education in schools

Steve Benford

Specialist in supporting museums to use digital technologies to engage visitors with difficult ethical issues

James Griffiths

Project consultant, Director of Learning, The National Holocaust Centre and Museum

Sylvia Necker

Postdoctoral researcher, involved in innovative exhibition designs for National Socialism and Jewish histories



Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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