“We move through time, we live time, we are creatures of time. Photography retrieves for us small shards of time, and we should relish our astonishment at this fact. ” Estelle Jussim 1989 (1)
Sometime, around seventy five years ago, a photographer took a picture of a young man outside a tent in the Western Dessert in Egypt. We can assume that the photographer was male, of a similar age as his subject and also in the RAF; we know nothing of his camera or process. The subject, my father, appears to be dressed to go somewhere, perhaps on leave; his boots are polished, his uniform ironed, his tie neatly knotted; not the normal day-to-day dress of desert warfare.
This photograph, like countless others, was taken by one service man of another during WWII. To the photographer and his subject it might have recorded a friendship forged during a conflict that had taken them to another continent to fight at a time in their life when my generation were getting married, buying our first home, planning families and talking our first steps on the career ladder.
This photograph is primarily viewed in the context of time, in fact it is inseparable from time. When it was taken the photographer opened the shutter of his camera for a fraction of a second, 1/60th or 1/125th, in any case less than the blink of an eye but in doing so he fixed this tiny moment in time so conclusively that I can view it a lifetime later. Over the intervening years the image has faded and will keep fading until it disappears from the paper, the scanned version may last longer or less, we cannot tell but, a conservative estimate would be that, in total, it will last at least a hundred years, at 1/60th second that is a relationship of 189,216,000,000:1 in terms the time it will be available for viewing and the moment in time it represents (i). Even now the lapsed time since it was taken has been long enough for the subject, the first generation, to survive the war, marry, have children, forge a successful career, retire, spend time with his three grandchildren and die. Two of his grandchildren, the third generation, have children of their own and, even if the photo fades in twenty five year’s time, it will quite probably be available to view by a fifth generation.
John Berger believes that every photograph contains two messages; firstly it communicates something about an event and secondly transmits a message concerning what he calls “a shock of discontinuity” (2:p.88). In this instance that second message is created by the seventy-five year gap between the moment he stood outside his tent and the “present moment of looking”(2:p.89). Berger makes the point that we are so used to looking at photographs that we rarely register what he refers to as “this abyss”; he also refers, across all of his writings, to the ambiguous nature of a photograph, his theories of how we view and understand photographs are built on the foundation of this ambiguity.
It is well exemplified here; the independent viewer will analyse and read the event captured, their interpretation will be personal, contextual and, depending on their knowledge of modern history, may or may not bear some similarity to my reading; they will note different details, might find a particular point of interest that resonates or achieves Barthes’ status as a punctum and they might read various sociopolitical messages connected to WWII, imperialism, white men’s wars fought in Africa, the perilous state of men’s military tailoring in the 1940’s or the prevalence of smokers in the armed forces. Inherent ambiguity is proven because all and non of these meanings and many others are available simultaneously and change over time so none of them can be truly embedded in the image, the image is merely an appearance of an event detached from any specific meaning that the viewer might assign to it.
There is an equal measure of ambiguity in Berger’s second message; the degree to which we are impacted by his shock of discontinuity varies depending on our relationship with the specific subject – a family member, a named airman in the desert, or just a WWII airman combined with the subject matter – the war in the Western Desert or the RAF in WWII. For the direct descendent of the subject Berger suggests that there is a “discontinuity created by absence or death” caused by the confirmation of the subject’s existence as a young man making his absence now more poignant. There may be a nearly equal shock of discontinuity for the close relative or friend of any airman lost in WWII. Berger argues that the viewer to whom the subject is a stranger does not read the message of discontinuity but Keith Robert’s work with the wartime archive of a Liverpool based photographer (3) and Marianne Hirsh’s writings on post memory (4) suggest that this argument is too simplistic.
Roberts refers to Svetlana Boym’s (3:p.2) comparisons of Reflective Nostalgia which is concerned with historical and individual time and Restorative Notalgia which evokes a national past; in the context of this first photograph I am influenced by the discontinuity of time at an individual or personal level, my nostalgia is therefore decidedly reflective. If this photograph was of any other service man in a similar location and at a similar point in history my nostalgic reaction would more likely be restorative, remembering the history of WWII and my families and nation’s role in it. These two forms of nostalgia are not mutually exclusive, in practice the viewer may experience a little of both especially when the subject is seen as an example of an RAF airman as opposed to an individual.
If photography and time are accepted as being inseparable perhaps memory could be the third point in a triangle of fundamental relationships. Photographs have become synonymous with the keeping of memories, David Bates states that:
“Photography has not only changed the means through which we individually recollect and remember things, but it has also completely transformed the entire social relations of any collective or social memory” (5:p.231).
In essence, our individual memories are woven together by our access to family archives, traditionally in albums but now more often on-line or on personal tablets whilst our view of history is framed by photographs of events both great and small published in books or on-line or held in public physical or electronic archives.
Marianne Hirsh is primarily concerned with the memories of the holocaust but her theories regarding post memory are relevant in a much wider context. Hirsh has recognised that as part of the generation whose parents were holocaust survivors she has no direct memories of the event but that the inherited stories of the tragedy are so traumatic and have been passed on verbally or visually in film and photographs so effectively that second and subsequent generations feel deeply connected and need to call this connection a memory. To differentiate between direct memory and this received memory Hirsh uses the term post memory. She explains:
“Post memory’s connection to the past is not actually mediated by recall but by imagination, investment, projection and creation.” (4)
Hirst highlights the role that photographs play, not just in the commemoration of the holocaust, but in the shaping of the our memories and understanding of the past. Through his work on the Hardman archive (6) Roberts has recognised that portraits of unknown soldiers not only trigger:
“Individual memories but shared public forms of memory which can contribute to the ultimate shaping of collective or social and cultural history.”
I want to introduce a second photograph at this point because the subject matter is similar, the moment in time not far removed from fig. 1 and because there is a loose relationship between the subjects but mostly because it is of German not allied troops. After the battle of El Alamein my father found a camera in a destroyed German tank. He had the film developed and this photograph, presumably taken whilst the German soldiers were trooping is one of the found prints. We know that the soldiers are part of Rommel’s Afrika Corp because of their cap badge, we can deduce that they are going to war based on the equipment arranged on the quayside. We know from history that after a series of victories these men would eventually be part of an vanquished army, statistically we can assume that some of the soldiers shown here died in battle. I include it here as a counterpoint to the first photograph and to explore whether my reaction to it is fundamentally altered because of the nationality of the subjects.
I have restorative nostalgia for the events that precede and follow this photograph, memories that are triggered by post memory of British history; beyond this I have reflective nostalgia for the era; my Mother and Grandmother survived the Blitz, my Father served in the Battle of Britain as well as the North African campaigns, I had an Uncle on the arctic convoys and another in the SIS serving with the French Resistance, an Aunt drove an Ambulance in the Blitz, my Grandfather was on fire watch; my family’s memories of the war years were vividly described during my childhood, they are part of my own memories.
The question is whether the switch from the “righteous” defender to the “unrighteous” aggressor invokes a different reading and triggers different memories. I believe the answer lies in the time elapsed, in 1942 this photograph would probably have evoked feelings of anger and possibly racial hatred; in 1943 after El Alamein perhaps feelings of superiority, along the lines of the jeers a football crowd offers the fans of their defeated opponents; but now in 2016 whilst I am conscious of the hateful swastika and everything it symbolises I only see young men despatched by their politicians to fight a foreign war. I also wonder how a German of my generation reads these two photographs, I cannot presume the answer but it seems reasonable to assume that their reaction would be different.
In each of these portraits the subject connects with the camera in a direct gaze, they look through the camera and seventy five years later make eye contact with the viewer. Depending on our relationship with the two men, our nationality, cultural background, family history and the point in time at which we look at the images the memories it triggers will vary. Both photographs are ambiguous, neither contains a fixed meaning nor are they inhabited by any memories but they are powerful mechanisms for the generation of both and as such the archival photograph plays a fundamental role in the shaping of personal and social history.
In researching this topic I became aware of contemporary photographers who have specifically explored the idea of post memory. Lorrie Novak is an example of a Jewish photographer who is trying to rationalise her own history and post memories of the holocaust. She is interest in “how we come to know the world and ourselves through photographs” (7)
Past lives is is a projected collage that combines images of Ethel Rosenberg, the children of Izieu who were deported by the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie to be executed in a concentration camp and Novak hugging her mother. For Novak this image represents her relationship with post memory of the holocaust “I become the recipient of the weight of my cultural past”; the photograph was widely published and became a symbol of Barbie’s crimes at the time of his trial in 1987.
Even for the non-Jewish viewer it evokes strong emotions, the horror of beautiful children murdered in the name of a perverted political doctrine, of wasted lives and the long term effects on subsequent generations. I cannot begin to imagine the emotional impact of this work on the descendent of a holocaust survivor. At a time when anti-semitism is back in the news (was it ever out of it?) and vocal minorities continue to use racial or religious identity as an excuse for mass murder that only falls short of genocide through lack of resource, Novak’s work is a timely reminder of the consequences of hatred.
Notes on Text
(i) This is not an original idea. John Berger uses the same calculation to discuss a photograph in Understanding a Photograph (8:p52)
(1) Battye, Greg (2014) Photography, Narrative, Time: Imaging our Forensic Imagination. Bristol: Intellect
(2) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(5) Bates, David (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts (second edition) London: Bloomsbury
(8) Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph (Kindle Edition) London: Penguin Classics
(3) Roberts, Keith W. (2015) There/Then : Here/Now Photographic Archival Intervention within the Edward Chambre Hardman Portraiture Collection (accessed at Academia 5.5.16) – https://www.academia.edu/12049291/There_Then_Here_Now_-_Photographic_Archival_Intervention_within_the_Edward_Chambre_Hardman_Portraiture_Collection_1923-1963
(4) Hirsh, Marianne (?) The Generation of Post Memory (accessed at North Seattle University 5.5.16) – http://facweb.northseattle.edu/cscheuer/Winter%202012/Engl%20102%20Culture/Readings/Hirsch%20Postmemory.pdf
(6) Hardman, Edward Chambre (1923 – 1963) The Hardman Archive (accessed at Hardman Portrait 7.5.16) – http://hardmanportrait.format.com/untitled-gallery
(7) Novak, Lorie (2005) Fragments and Past Lives (accessed at the photographer’s website 5.5.16) – http://www.lorienovak.com/pdfs/Novak_Fragments_PastLives.pdf