Department of History

Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism

Running from 2018 to 2021, this three-year, AHRC funded project explores the role of photography in understanding, teaching, and commemorating National Socialism and the Holocaust.

The project brings together an interdisciplinary team from History, Education and Computer Science, led by PI Prof Maiken Umbach, with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum as project partners. 


Black and white image of a large group of children and young people in shorts and t-shirts sitting on each others' shoulders to pose for the photo

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.

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, 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.

Advisory board

  • Michael Wildt (Professor for Modern German History at Humboldt University Berlin)
  • Daniel Wildmann (Director of Leo Baeck Institute London and Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University of London)
  • Tim Cole (Professor of Social History and Director of Brigstow Institute at the University of Bristol)
  • Alan Marcus (Associate Professor at Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut)
  • William Niven (Professor in Contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University)
  • Judy Cohen (Photo Archivist and Chief Acquisitions Curator at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Museum partners

The National Holocaust Centre and Museum are project partners. Together, we have been awarded a further grant from Arts Council England, to create the exhibition The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust, which will tour the UK in 2020 and 2021.

We have also appointed two international museum curators who work within our project team. They are Herbert Justnik, from the Ethnographic Museum, Vienna, Austria and Magdalena Vukovic from the Photoinstitut Bonartes in Vienna.

Planned outputs Planned impacts

Eye Witness: Improving Public Engagement



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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