Since we’ve been doing mostly technical stuff lately, and I don’t have any exciting Photoshop stories to share, I thought I’d riff for a bit on the role of photographs in history, and particularly the question of how we interpret the meaning of photographs.
So what’s the photograph I have above? Well, in the foreground, we have men in American Army uniforms, circa 1945, and in the background men in German uniforms, many of whom appear to be dead. Taken at Dachau during the liberation, the photo is most likely taken after Lt. Walsh issued orders (the extent and clarity of which is ambiguous) that resulted in the deaths of at least 17 German POWs. Even knowing the context, I find the photograph perplexing. Why are the three Germans still standing? Did they not dive for cover when the shooting started? Is the guy in the middle with his arms crossed defiant, or simply tired? How long after the shooting took place was the photo taken? While it’s difficult to see at the resolution you have here, a number of the Germans on the ground aren’t dead, and are in fact looking back towards the line of Americans. Why are they still lying in the pile of bodies? Are they wounded? Is the photo taken too soon after the shooting for them to have gotten up?
Most interesting, to me, anyway, is why was this picture taken? Because it looks, quite clearly, like a massacre. So why did an American (and the person behind the camera almost certainly has to be American) take a picture of an American war crime? This isn’t unheard of, of course. Soldiers often take pictures of the carnage they witness, or inflict, and German soldiers certainly took plenty of photographs of their own crimes. It seems to be almost a form of souvenir taking. A way of saying “I was here, I saw the worst of war, and I can prove it.”
So what does this tell us about photographs for the purpose of history? I think it speaks to the sensitivity of photographs to change. I encourage you to look up the full size image of this picture (there’s a 5000×4000 version online if you search for Dachau Massacre) because its striking how just shrinking down the image reduces its complexity. The German dead in the small one look like a solid mass of dead, whereas in the full size you can see that a number of people are still clearly alive, if perhaps wounded. It complicates the image, making the violence look less thorough, more haphazard. It’s more ambiguous. You don’t notice the German on the far right, behind the American with the BAR, as much, and it isn’t as prominent that he’s standing past the edge of the pile of dead and wounded. It’s an extreme effect of a small change, and from a change that you wouldn’t think would make much of a difference. I think it encourages a certain degree of caution when “touching up” old images, since the emotional resonance, the meaning, of an image can be drastically altered by seemingly inconsequential things.
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I like your thoughts here, thanks for sharing them! This is a really moving image and one that is very important. It raises, for me, concerns about what happens when we alter images, even to “clean them up” – how much do we affect the credibility of an image like this if we note that we’ve modified it, even moderately? Thanks for raising such interesting questions!
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