The Camera As Witness
Boarding a train in Paris under the watchful eye of a German soldier
"Every photojournalist wants to make an impact, wants his picture to be worth a thousand words."
Alex Levac, The Camera as Witness
Wider availability of the camera
As cameras became more widely available and began to be carried by individual soldiers as well as by journalists they were used to capture key moments in the progress of conflicts. Many soldiers kept cameras in their field packs and managed to snap their own amateur photos. Though the Nazi regime tried to keep a strict check on such activity, it nevertheless encouraged its soldiers to take photos as a way of strengthening the connection between the soldiers' homes and the front to improve the soldiers morale.
As the armies on both sides wandered across the battlefields of Europe and the Far East many of them took cameras with them and snapped moments in their daily lives. We are now able to understand much more about what happened during the two great wars because of the vast libraries of photographs available. They show, in detail, what was happening both on the battlefields and away from the war zones on the home front.
The camera as a weapon
In 1938 the German military command began recruiting photographers for its propaganda campaigns. As a propaganda tool, "the camera has become a weapon in the hands of soldiers," one wrote.
As photographers, there were many rules that they were not allowed to break. Photos of dead, dying or wounded Germans, for example, were completely unacceptable. Photos of German soldiers or SS officers rounding up, intimidating and deporting Jews or partisans also had no chance whatsoever of passing through the Nazi censors. But many of these photographers took photos, anyway, and kept them after the war.
Many of the soldier-photographers managed to capture the mass shootings of Jews or the hanging of members of the resistance on photo and film pictures that were strictly forbidden by the SS.
Such horror photos were taken out of the pockets of dead or captured German fighters by Russian soldiers during the siege of Stalingrad . The photos then became evidence in the trials against German war criminals in the Soviet Union and later in Germany .
When Allied troops arrived at the concentration camps at the end of the war - Auschwitz , Bergen-Belsen , Dachau and others - many soldiers took photos of the horrors they uncovered there. Since that time people have argued about whether these images should ever have been shown. Some said they were too horrific for public viewing, others that they should have respected the dead and dying and not allowed them to become exhibits on film. However many people are of the opinion that they serve a very valuable purpose as a way of educating future generations about such atrocities. What do you think?
"We can never really claim to have seen anything unless it has been photographed"
Émile Zola, c. 1901, Minutes of the Camera Club of Paris
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