War is not just the extraordinary spectacle of violence. It is also ordinary scenes of survival. The photo-shoot is a collaborative public project that invites you to look at war in a new way, by sharing your photos and the stories behind them.
Posted March 10, 2015
This is me on Guatemalan national television. Or rather, this is a blurry screen-shot of an interview I did on Guatevisión, a news broadcast that goes out nationally three times daily from Monday to Friday, and once at the weekends. The interview took place at the Museo de los Mártires del Movimiento Sindical, Estudiantil y Popular in Guatemala City on 24 February 2014. I was at the Museum as part of the fascinating field trip, organized by the photographer Daniel Hernández-Salazar, for participants at our Cold War Camera conference that was due to start in Antigua the following day. The Museum is dedicated to the memory of the union activist, Amancio Samuel Villatoro, who disappeared on 30 January 1984, and whose remains were identified 19 years later by the Fundación de Antropología Forense (FAFG). Villatoro’s son, Néstor Villatoro, had just been giving us a guided tour, culminating in the final room of this small museum, where the skeleton of his father rests in a glass case alongside the jeans he was wearing when he was disappeared. The film crew arrived and took shots of some of our group viewing the exhibits and then pulled me outside for a quick interview, consisting of some simple questions: how many were in our group? Where did we come from? What was the conference about, and why had we chosen Guatemala to host the conference? I’ve only watched the clip once because it makes me cringe – I hear my accented Spanish and see my hands flailing about. But I’m so glad that I did it. I nearly didn’t.
We’d arrived at the charming Hotel Panamericano in downtown Guatemala City the day before, where my research collaborator Thy Phu and I had sat down to discuss final details for the field trip and conference. It was stressful enough organizing a conference in a country we barely knew. Even more so when word reached us from a source that I can’t name here that we should be very careful about the press activities we had planned to draw attention both to our activities and our interest in Guatemala. The source warned us that speaking about the Cold War in Guatemala might have undisclosed consequences… We turned this over and over between us; we worried; we didn’t sleep well. But in the end, I did the interview. It was a very small, simple thing. But it was important to show our presence in, and solidarity with Guatemala, a country in which, as we discovered, Cold War politics still play out…
Posted March 10, 2015
This photo always makes me laugh, even though, or precisely because, I don’t seem to be having much fun in it. It is my seventh birthday and we had been living in Ban Thad, a Thai refugee camp, for some time. My family and I arrived here after having escaped Vietnam as “boat people.” This was a limbo camp, where we waited and waited to be called to move on to a processing or transition camp, and then hopefully, a new life. The photograph was taken just shortly after we had gotten news of my father’s disappearance at sea. My father, who had survived years of war, and re-education imprisonment in its wake, did not make it to us. So, my mother and her best friend decided to throw a party, to ease the heartbreak perhaps, or to offer me the semblance of a “normal” childhood in such an extra-ordinary place. A beautiful gesture, for sure. And here I was, refusing to offer a smile for the camera, to complete the happy scene that everyone was trying to create. As you can see, the spread was delicious—spring rolls, fried noodles, soup, and jelly. The crowning item, however, was the box of raisins sitting in the middle of the table. Despite their attempts to hide it from me I’d found it days earlier and asked if it was candy (and if so, could I please eat some!!!)—I hadn’t tasted candy in such a long time. They lied and said it was medicine. I remember feeling relieved that it wasn’t medicine, but also disappointed that there would be no candy either. The sweetness of raisins would have to do. The intense flavour that lingered on my fingers when the last raisin was gone tasted like the love and abundance on display here.
This was the first birthday that sticks to memory. There haven’t been many parties after it. To this day, I dislike celebrating my day of birth, finding the attention too much to bear. Maybe many years ago in Ban Thad the raisins were just a little too bittersweet.
Vinh Nguyen lives in Toronto. He is currently a doctoral candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. In the summer of 2015, he will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in Diaspora Literature in English at Renison University College, University of Waterloo.
Posted December 12, 2013
Peter Oehlmann and Jens Rötzsch were two photographers best known for their controversial work in the German Democratic Republic during the late 1980s. Their projects focused on everyday life in the GDR before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which culminated in the September 1988 exhibition, Protokoll-Strecken: Bilder aus dem gesellschaftlichen Leben (Protocol-Areas: Images from Societal Life), at the gallery Eigen+Art in Leipzig. The title of this exhibition is significant because it plays on the compound noun Protokollstrecken, a highly bureaucratic term describing the artificially beautified area, usually thronged with waving children and tightly controlled by The Ministry for State Security (STASI), which foreign state guests passed by on official visits to East Berlin. Once hyphenated, the term Protokoll-Strecken became a satirical and nonsensical inversion of GDR bureaucracy as it revealed the desperate attempt to project the image of a functioning state apparatus.
Oehlmann’s black and white series of photographs Graulandbilder (Grey-Land-Images) are a visual condemnation of ‘real socialism’ in crisis and a depressing representation of boredom and repetitiveness in the GDR. Although Rötzsch’s bright and colourful photographs create a visual contrast to Oehlmann’s work, this contrast only elevates the impression that both artists consider the GDR to be a farcical and redundant entity. It is, however, not individual images that explicitly criticize the state. Rather, it is the exhibition as a whole, the series of photographs by the two artists in close vicinity and in contrast to each other that creates not an explicit but an implicit criticism of contemporary life in the GDR.
Since government officials nervously observed any signs of social dissent in preparation for the annual trade fair in Leipzig, the Volkspolizei, or the People’s Police, visited Oehlmann and Rötzsch’s exhibition before the opening. As none of the images explicitly attacked the regime, the censors could not object to the exhibition, which consequently became extremely popular. In this regard, the semi-legitimate status of the gallery Eigen+Art is significant. The name of the gallery itself is a double entendre, which can be translated as ‘an individual’s art’ and ‘strange’. Established in 1985, Eigen+Art was able to circumvent tight government control by actually establishing itself as a workshop that artists from the artists’ association VBK could rent for an agreed fee. Although aware of this loophole, state security apparatuses were not able to suppress the emergence of a ‘second culture’ that thrived on playful, satirical and subtly subversive representations of the GDR.
Marco Bohr is a photographer, academic and researcher in visual culture, who currently holds a position as Lecturer in Visual Communication at Loughborough University. His publications appear in a number of edited volumes on film, photography and visual culture, including: The Contemporary Visual Studies Reader, Frontiers of Screen History, On Perfection (ed. Longhurst), the book series Directory of World Cinema and the book series World Film Locations. Marco is on the editorial board for the forthcoming journal East Asian Journal of Popular Culture. In 2013 Marco was awarded a Japan Foundation Fellowship for his ongoing research on the photographic representation of post-tsunami landscapes.
Posted December 2, 2013
From 1971 to 1977, Daniela Mrázková served as editor-in-chief of Revue fotografie (Photography Revue), one of the most influential photo magazines in the communist bloc. However, her career started coincidentally: as a child of a former political prisoner, she was only allowed to study Russian at an Open University. But because she had to be employed to be accepted, she started working at Revue fotografie, which introduced a Russian edition in 1959.
In 1962 Mrázková joined the editorial office. “It was during the first half of the 1960s when things began to change in this communist country,“ Mrázková remembers. “Photography was one of the tools of this change.“ Under her direction the magazine no longer published amateur photographs; next to presenting Czech and other Eastern European photography, it also informed about international photography from the USA, Japan, or Western Europe, and established contacts to photo magazines abroad. RF also showed a wide range of phtoography, including art, press, documentary, fashion, and society photography, as well as nudes with high quality texts and images.
With its broad reach, the RF served as a desirable international platform for Soviet photographers especially. Mrázková and her husband, filmmaker and publicist Vladímir Remeš, traveled to Moscow frequently. As Mrázková recalls, during their first visits she met photographers usually at the office of Marina Bugaeva, the editor in chief of the magazine Sovetskoe Foto (Soviet Photo). Later the photographers visited Mrázková in her hotel room to show her “’other’ pictures, which were not published because they depicted people´s suffering, shabby people, unhappiness or undesirable things like that.“
On these journeys Remeš and Mrázková gathered information on Russian avant-garde photographers that in the early 1970s were still rejected as `formalist´, on Soviet war photography and on contemporary non-conformist trends. Back home the RF featured a series of picture reports with Russian avant-garde photographs that had not been seen since the inter-war period. Furthermore in 1975 Mrázková published a book on Soviet war photographers (Fotografovali válku: sovětská válečná reportáž ) with pictures that beyond the stereotypical heroic imagery evoked the hardships of the Second World War.
After the event of the Charta 77, an informal civic intiative that criticized the socialist state, the situation of relative freedom for the publication on photography in Czechoslovakia changed. Having left RF in 1977 Mrázková was banned from publishing at home. Nevertheless, she still managed to use her contacts abroad to provide information about the cultural situation of late state socialism and to promote Czech and Soviet photographers internationally through articles and books.
"Giving a voice to the other Russia. Daniela Mrázková in conversation with Jörg Jung, Prague 2009," in: Dewitz, Bodo von (ed.): Political Images. Soviet Photographs. The Daniela Mrázková Collection. Museum Ludwig Köln. Göttingen 2009: 27-32.
Eva Pluhařová-Grigienė is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute of Art and Visual History of the Humboldt University Berlin. Her research areas include the visual culture and history of art of Eastern Europe, with a special interest in photography in late state socialism, and transnational artistic exchange.
Posted September 9, 2013
I'm looking at some old photographs in search for valuable arguments for any future life-writing that I may intend to do. They have a story of their own since they came to me across the ocean in a box, together with other photographs rescued from my former life in Romania.
I'm "reading" them today with Walter Benjamin's caveat in mind, according to which, a unique, irreplaceable image of the past disappears if it is not recognized by the present moment.
My photos are also about self and history together. They open up under the shock of history and make manifest forgotten fragments of childhood, thus saving the photos from their disappearance. Undoubtedly, "family frames" are overpowered by "history frames".
In one of them, the photographed subject is myself at about 4 years old. There is no information on the back of the photo and there are no other members of the family who could answer my questions. The photo was taken in 1950 but I don't remember who took it, - just a snapshot taken probably by the owner of the apartment we lived in, who came monthly to collect the rent.
The little girl sits on the fence in front of the yard that encloses the house where we lived for more than 20 years on a quiet street in the center of Bucharest. She is dressed in a jump suit with some sort of ribbons on the hat or in the hair.
What touches me, to use Roland Barthes' words, what pierces my mind's eyes are not the big ribbons or the modest jumpsuit, not even the loneliness of the girl, sitting there in front of the house, looking at an empty street. I am touched by her pose, different from that of other photos taken at the same age. Knowing that she is being photographed, the girl makes a bravado pose, with her hand on the hip, as if ready to embark in the competition of her life. Today I know that her competition is caught in the history's tracks that will decide her future life, without any possibility of appeal.
The iron fence where the child sit is such a history "track" that separates the home from the street and the country, and further, the country and the Eastern Bloc from Europe. After the end of the war, the occupation of the country by the Soviet army and the rapid elevation of the Communist party to power in Romania define a period of transition when the country turned to the East and away from Europe - an opposite trajectory from its evolution since the middle of the 19th century when the country started the process of nation building, a European phenomenon. The postwar internal transformations happened in parallel with the weakening of the Western Allies, and the strengthening of the Soviet influence over Eastern Europe's territories. The process was clearly spelled out by Churchill in his famous Iron Curtain speech:
"From Stetin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow."
I will learn much later that this speech was delivered on the very day and year of my birth.
The Iron Curtain and the iron fence must equally frame the reading of my childhood photos as well as any future life writing I may pursue.
Roxana Verona is professor of French and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She published several articles on nineteenth and twentieth-century French literature, cultural studies, and East-Central European literary history. She is the author of Sainte-Beuve’s Salons: The Critic and His Muses (Champion, 1999), and Francophone Journeys: Anna de Noailles and her cultural family (Champion 2011). She is now working on a project about photography and life-writing.
Posted September 2, 2013
One of the most chilling visual records of contemporary genocide consists of photos taken of S-21, the infamous extermination camp in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They were first recovered by the invading Vietnamese army in 1978, and have been displayed since 1980 at the Tuol Sleng Museum, which is located on the grounds of this former camp. While the S-21 photos are now a familiar archive, as recently as the mid-1990s, they were almost forgotten.
Doug Niven, co-founder of the nonprofit Photo Archive Group, helped preserve and exhibit these photographs internationally. In 1997, he also tracked down one of S-21’s principal photographers, Nhem Ein. Niven’s interview, excerpted here, is the first official statement by Nhem Ein about his activities at Tuol Sleng, and took place in Phnom Penh on March 12, 1997. Below is a portrait of this notorious photographer, in his own words.
I was chosen to go to China because of my background. I am a hard working man, I joined the revolution when I was a boy a long time ago, and was also one on the team of "model children" (komar chhean mouk).
I didn't know anything at all when they sent me to China. I was the only Cambodian studying photography. I was also trained to make documentary films and draw maps. My teacher was Chinese and one of his assistants helped translate everything into Khmer. I still have the same Chinese photography book in Anlong Veng, with Khmer notes added.
I spent one month making films, one month drawing maps, one month processing film….
I travelled by boat to China with about 80 other Cambodians and took a special Communist Party plane back. Ta Nath (from General Staff) was on the plane with me, and was killed after he came back in Sihanoukville.
During the training I had no idea [what I’d be doing when I got back to Cambodia]. But when I arrived back in Phnom Penh I was assigned to take photographs at the Ministry of National Defense in Unit 870, and at Tuol Sleng. Unit 870 was a special unit in charge of Phnom Penh, under the charge of Pol Pot.
I started this job fifteen days after I arrived back from China.
When I first arrived at Tuol Sleng I was hesitant (kreak chet), so scared, but because this was an assignment I had to take it. Later on I got used to it, like feeling numb.
I can’t remember exactly how many [prisoners were there], but it was very crowded, very full. There were many things going on, different activities, many trucks loaded with people, coming from different regions. This was in December 1976.
What made me really scared was when I saw the trucks loaded with people and they shoved people off the trucks, and were pushed when they hit the ground. I was still young and this scared me. Those people were blindfolded and their hands were tied-up.
When I was first at Tuol Sleng I was scared, but after seeing the same thing every day I got used to it. It became normal.
The interrogation rooms were not inside Tuol Sleng itself, but in a building in front of the prison. The interrogations were conducted day and night, especially at night. The cries from the victims were especially loud at night, because at that time there was no noise in Phnom Penh. Their cries were so loud we could hear them from 500 meters away. There were no neighbors to complain about the noise, and sometimes we could hear the reactions of the victims saying "well if you want to kill me, go ahead you traitor!" (a kbot cheat).
We didn't want to keep dead bodies nearby Tuol Sleng because of the smell, and the majority were taken to Cheong Ek. In 1977 the place smelled like shit…
While I was working at Tuol Sleng I saw one of my cousin but I couldn't say anything or help. I had to pay attention to myself—rather than worry about another person (kbal neak na sok neak nung).
We had 35mm, 6x6cm and 16mm cameras, which were taken from Phnom Penh photo shops. The 6x6cm film—very popular at the time— was the easiest to find, and simple to process. We also found Japanese-manufactured chemicals: borax, kenon, bolsovik, and carbonate from the shops. I learned how to mix the chemicals from the book I was given in China, to which I added translated notes/instructions in Khmer.
I had a lot of cameras, but my favorite was [a] Yashica, made in Japan. I learned how to measure the light while I was in China, and to make the correct exposure.
I rarely made mistakes in mixing the processing chemicals, because all of these negatives were for record keeping. If I made a mistake, I would have a serious problem. If I made one or two mistakes that would be it.
Sometimes when we were bored and had nothing to do we tickled each other and played around. Sometimes we tickled the subject, and a few times by accident we made a photo of the tickling.
I never saw any Chinese advisors come visit Tuol Sleng, but oftentimes I would go visit them in Phnom Penh, but I never told them about Tuol Sleng. Aside from my work at the prison I sometimes went out and made photos of Chinese, North Korean delegations, and sometimes made trips into the provinces, but these trips away from Tuol Sleng were rare.
When I go back to Tuol Sleng now I feel very shocked and see it as dictatatorship (amnach bdachkar). Even now [in 1997] the Khmer Rouge are still using the same ways/methods (dictatorship). It's good to have this museum to show the world about the tragedies committed by Pol Pot, to show the world not to make the same mistakes.
Doug Niven is co-founder of Photo Archive Group, and has worked as a photojournalist and photo editor. In the 1990s, he was based for several years in Cambodia. Today, he works at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Posted May 23, 2013
Although these haunting photos of the genocide were first discovered in 1978, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that spectators in the West truly paid attention to them. This shift from a politics of disregard to an ethics of attention is sudden, striking, and perplexing.
That the photos should garner greater attention in the 1990s is hardly coincidental. After all, this period marks the end of the Cold War and is all the more important for a palpable swing in how the West championed human rights: instead of focusing on rescue and resettlement of refugees—the dominant concern of the late 1970s and 1980s—this was an era of repatriation. The S-21 photos have been looked at, and, even more tellingly overlooked, during an extended period when human rights discourse served as part of an ideological arsenal in the Cold War skirmish for power and influence in Southeast Asia. While many viewers assume these perpetrator photos advocate on behalf of human rights, their circulation history suggests otherwise.
In the early 1990s, Congress earmarked $1 million for the Office of Cambodian Investigation, which in turn awarded a grant of $500,000 to the CGP, newly established at Yale University. This shift in U.S. priorities is remarkable not because it took so long, but that it should come at the very time that so-called compassion fatigue was most acute. The cause that Americans had long championed, the refugee crisis, was one that they abandoned at the same time that they adopted another issue. Notably, in 1991 admissions of Cambodian refugees dropped dramatically for the first time since the Vietnamese invasion. Although the two causes, the refugee crisis and justice for genocide, are fundamentally related, these tellingly timed decisions split them apart.
It’s tempting to credit the portraits and the digitalization of the archive for the surge of support for the war crimes tribunal that culminated a decade later with the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Yet the reverse might be closer to the truth. The international community’s deepening commitment to the cause of justice set the stage for the spotlight to shine with unprecedented brightness on the S-21 photos.
Posted May 23, 2013
This photograph archives queer, illicit desire in Cold War America. It was made by George Platt Lynes, and is part of a set of male nudes that the photographer made in the decades leading to his death, from lung cancer, in 1955. Because exhibiting these photographs was a impossibility during Lynes's lifetime due to Cold War homophobia, he circulated them privately among his queer kinship networks.
Lynes was part of a closely connected circle of elite gay men who dominated American arts and letters in the interwar and early post-war years. For 16 years, Lynes lived with the writer Glenway Wescott and museum curator Monroe Wheeler, who were a couple for over fifty years; they had a variety of other sexual partners throughout, including Lynes, who shared a bedroom with Wheeler during their years together. All three of them, as well as friends and colleagues Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, and other leading figures, participated in sex parties in the 1940s and 1950s, as documented in their personal papers. However, in the context of 1950s-era red scares, which particularly focused on homosexuals, the more open sexual subcultures of the 1930s and 1940s were driven even further underground.
In April of 1950, Glenway Wescott wrote George Platt Lynes that while the erotic explicitness of George’s nudes didn’t personally concern him, he was worried for Monroe Wheeler, since Wheeler held a public position as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “I really don’t mind scabrousness, etc., on my account, as you must know,” he wrote. “Only that our poor M [Monroe] must conclude his career with good effect and honor, I am anxious not to involve him in what is now called (in the nation’s capital) ‘guilty by association’ (have you been reading the columns and columns in the newspapers upon this and correlative points?).”
Although McCarthyism is often understood as the effort to purge suspected communists from the State Department and other branches of the federal government, the Red Scare equally targeted homosexuals, who were forced out of public service and into the closet. Wescott may well have been referring to the front page of the New York Times on March 1, 1950, where Secretary of State Dean Acheson testified about the Alger Hiss trial and the loyalty program at the State Department. Although the article purportedly concerned communism, it shows that the red scare mainly affected homosexuals, as Wescott clearly understood. Senator Bridges asked John E. Peurifoy, Deputy Under-Secretary of State in charge of the security program, how many members of the State Department had resigned since the investigations began in 1947. “Ninety-one persons in the shady category,” Mr. Peurifoy replied, “most of these were homosexuals.” This was not necessarily newsworthy in and of itself, so far as the New York Times was concerned in 1950, and the remainder of the article detailed the testimony relating to other aspects of the hearings.
Lynes continued to make and circulate his portraits, despite this climate of homophobia. He was very concerned that the work find an audience, and published it in several issues of the Swiss homosexual journal Der Kreis in the 1950s. He also became an important informant for Alfred Kinsey’s research, as did Glenway Wescott and other members of their circle. Between 1949 and 1955, Lynes sold and donated much of his erotic nudes to Kinsey, where they are now part of the Kinsey Institute collections in Bloomington, Indiana.
Posted April 25, 2013
How did the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, morph from one of the final acts of World War II into one of the first of the Cold War? This event certainly helped define the period it closed, one in which bombs, putsches, purges and gas chambers were used to slaughter millions of civilians, often by their own governments. Yet by 1950, official opinion behind the Iron Curtain had deemed Dresden’s destruction an act of capitalist aggression delivered by Anglo-American bombers that foretold an atomic catastrophe which only socialism could forestall. This carefully orchestrated reframing took the form of endless speeches and printed tirades. But photography provided its most compelling visual form. One of these now forgotten pictures was snapped by Dresden resident Richard Peter, a politically radical amateur “worker photographer” during the Weimar era and later a press photographer in the nascent German Democratic Republic.
In the days following the bombing, Peter shot innumerable photographs, some of which have become iconic. Five years later he assembled a selection of these into a book titled Eine Kamera Klagt an [A Camera Accuses]. This picture of a construction worker, dressed nearly in rags and scaling a hastily assembled latter, seems innocuous enough. But the rhetorical framing that Peter gave his book, and the larger discourse he meant to engage, burdens this construction worker with the weight of cold war symbolism. He is not merely an anonymous man scaling a destroyed building. He is the mighty proletarian, reclaiming Dresden from its capitalist destruction and putting the city on its heroic course to socialist reconstruction.
Peter shot him dramatically from below as he slips skyward along a diagonal defined by the latter itself, his mallet and the canister on his back. The worker now rises like a phoenix from the city’s ashes and correspondingly serves a reincarnation of the figure of death Peter placed near the book’s beginning. This skeleton, actually used for modeling at the city’s art academy, seems to scratch at the void that once was the Frauenkirche [Church of our Lady], gesturing toward the rubble heap that would become a monument to Dresden’s destruction, until its 2008 reconstruction. Poet and politician Max Zimmerling summed up the significance of these photographs in the book’s prologue: "The brilliance that once was in your eyes, illuminated by music/ and painting,/ Was made to yield to a particular shame, and that shame/ Carries the name of Wall Street."