I read an article the other day in Black and White Photography Magazine about August Sander, who photographed the people of Germany between the wars. There’s lots of biographical information about him online, and lots of his images too, so I’m not going to go over it here, though I’m going to link to one of my favourite Sander portraits to get you started. I can’t help but see him as an inter war german hard man: but on the left or the right?
His photos are very good, but what for me (as somebody who is interested in history) is that these very ordinary people are the same people who lost everything in hyper-inflation, broke the windows of Jewish shops on Kristalnacht, fought in the streets against the brownshirts, froze at Stalingrad or died in Auschwitz. We have no idea of the fate of any of them, and of course when he took the photos neither did Sander.
Some of his later work does clearly mark the subjects out for what they were, his SS Officer from 1938 is particularly striking, though of course we have no idea what became of him or what he did or did not do. He also produced a number of photos of Jews in the late 30s, and these are particularly unsettling; did they leave Germany for safety, somehow survive or not. What happened to this young woman with freckles for example? Do I really want to know? Probably not, I prefer to think of her laughing and joking in New England than being pushed into a gas chamber; really, who wouldn’t?
This is the thing we don’t always think about when we take a photo, that we are photographing without knowledge of what is to come and that the future may look at our work with a completely different eye.