Department of History

Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism - Planned Impac

The challenges we face in using photography in public education about National Socialism and the Holocaust are significant and urgent. Recording the testimony of the last remaining Holocaust survivors has been a recent priority for many museums hoping to ‘keep alive’ the voices of the victims of Nazism. Yet many of the same museums rely on photos taken by supporters of the Nazi regime or the perpetrators of its crimes to document this difficult history.

Captions alone cannot counteract the powerful emotive appeal of images, which convey seemingly ‘authentic’ glimpses of the past, but which were, for the most part, taken by propaganda photographers and implicated individuals, and sometimes explicitly dedicated to ‘the historians of the future’. We cannot continue to replicate the ‘gaze’ of such photos without more effective strategies to challenge its implicit messages, nor can we assume that horrific photos ‘speak for themselves’ in benign ways. Moreover, recent research has identified serious shortcomings in how the general public and school pupils currently understand Nazism and the Holocaust.

Our impact strategy builds on a partnership with a leading Holocaust museum, which in turn will enable us to reach out to a range of historical museums and schools to re-think the role of photos in understanding this difficult past.


Impact Strategy

1. Partnership with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM)

The NHCM, our project partners, have close connections with a wide network of Holocaust survivors; they also have an excellent record of working with schools. We are supporting the NHCM in articulating the next phase of their strategy.

  • “The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust”. This exhibition, which we co-created with colleagues from the NHCM, combines new techniques and technologies for ‘deconstructing’ perpetrator photos, and shining a new light on the significance of images taken by people persecuted by the Nazi regime. It will also serve as a platform for conducting detailed visitor studies, combining interviews and questionnaires with gaze tracking and interactive digital exhibits, thus forming an evidence base for future developments at NHCM, and in the sector more widely.
  • A new concept for the NHCM permanent exhibition. Drawing on the project research and “The Eye as Witness”, we are working with the NHCM to transform their use of photos in their own exhibitions, not as illustrations, but as ‘difficult’ ideological artefacts that require critical interrogation. We want to use photos to confront museum visitors with the experience of Holocaust victims, and the motivations of perpetrators, juxtaposing personal and official photographs, to invite audiences to reflect on the politics and ethics of different photographic perspectives. We work with the NHCM team on design solutions that speak to their pedagogic priorities.
  • A new concept for on-site ‘disruptive technologies’ to prompt visitors to engage with challenging photos to reflect on global citizenship in a world in which genocide continues to be a reality, and a future threat. We develop concepts for interactive facilities where visitors re-create the temporal and spatial selection processes inherent in each act of photography. Three digital project workshops will inform their design: one at and with the NHCM, to explore how the physical site might be enhanced by digital interventions; one at and with the Nottingham ‘Horizon’ computer lab, to investigate emerging technologies for museum spaces; one, at their studio, with ‘Blast Theory’, an artist collective who use augmented reality in museums to explore ethical challenges. 

2. A Massive Online Open Course on ‘Photographs, Nazism and the Holocaust’

This MOOC, which is free to all participants, will be hosted by the leading British online learning platform ‘FutureLearn’, with 5.6m learners globally, and is informed by an award-winning MOOC model developed by Maiken Umbach. The content draws on the project research, and will be developed in collaboration with the NHCM to ensure alignment with the museum's strategy and with the needs of schools. The MOOC will run annually for a three-week period, for at least three years. It will be open, free of charge, to learners in the UK and globally, and encourage online learner interaction and discussion with the educators.

3. Enhancing Holocaust teaching and learning in UK schools

To explore how best to translate our research on photos of NS and the Holocaust into classroom settings, we will work with schools of different kinds to explore new pedagogies around using visual images. Particular attention will be given to the ethics of engaging school pupils of different ages with this difficult topic, selecting photos appropriate to age and key stage. We will ascertain current practice through questionnaires and interview, and these will inform the development of new materials. Teachers from the participating schools will be actively involved in the development of these materials. There will be follow-up evaluation based questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with teachers and pupils. Using a model of challenge-driven research, the analysis and evaluation of this impact activity will in turn generate research questions, to be explored in planned publications.

4. Sharing best practice with museums nationally and internationally

Building on the above, we are advising museums specialising in the Holocaust, genocide, and/or the history of National Socialism on the use of photography and its role in their on-site and digital strategies. We are currently working on such questions with the Imperial War Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with whom we ran a joint workshop in October 2019 entitled “Images of the Holocaust: Workshop on the Use of Historical Photography in Scholarship and Museum Pedagogy”. We also helped curate the exhibition “Everybody line up! It‘s time to snap!” Private Photography in Austria 1930-1950 at the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna, and are working with Magdalena Vukovic from the Bonartes Photo Gallery on a new travelling exhibition on private photography in Nazi Germany. 
Planned outputs


Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism


Project team

This is an interdisciplinary 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

Claudia Reese Project consultant, Senior Researcher, The National Holocaust Centre and Museum

Jonathan Stafford Postdoctoral researcher, working on audience responses to photographs of National Socialism and the Holocaust

Tanya Sakhnovich Honorary researcher, Rabbi and project advisor

Sylvia Necker Honorary researcher, expert in private Jewish photography



Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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