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Project D10

Fighting for the Photo: War Photographers as Heroes and Hero-Makers in the Second World War


Prof. Dr. Cornelia Brink
Vera Marstaller

Department of History

Since the 1930s, war photographers (who were more often male than female) have been portrayed as a new model of a heroic warrior. In a combat setting, the act of taking photos can be heroic, and the photographer can be reconstructed as a hero who transcends borders. The war photographer works in the grey area between reporting and fighting and is (purportedly) ready to put their life on the line for a "good" photograph. Furthermore, their proximity to troops allows their work to overcome the distance between the front and the homeland. War photographers present images of heroes and heroic actions in magazines and photobooks (with the potential to "make heroes" out of their subjects) to a wide audience while conveying heroic ideals and deeds.

This project analyzes the heroic model of war photographers that emerged in the Second World War and is located at the intersection between politics and the media, between the military and omnipresent, organized violence. The accompanying dissertation project focuses on how photographers of the Propagandakompanien (war photography units in the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS) presented their images in a heroic style. Whether heroes are always heroes for others, whether they are in demand, whether systems of order and value erode and antisemitism and racism are legitimized for eliminating "enemies of the people," an analysis of photographs and the reconstruction of the premises for their creation can help to answer the question of why the type of heroization they produce is needed. What interests and goals do these war photographers and their heroic images promise to achieve for those who look at their pictures and react to them by writing captions and comments before their dissemination? What specific experiences of time become recognizable when these heroic photographs are understood as an effect of projection and identification?

In the course of this project, the project leader will write a book that will expand the investigation period to include the 1970s. This diachronic perspective will serve as a method with which to analytically explain the transformation of the war photographer from a solider-photographer to a photographer who aims to enlighten viewers in the service of truth and humanity. In what ways does this theory demonstrate a break with past trends as well as a continuation thereof? Where do German war photographers place themselves in the years following 1945 in relation to (critical) journalism and military tradition? How are they viewed by others? And regarding their power to make heroes, how were old photographs released before the end of the war contextualized after 1945? What new motifs relating to heroes and heroic action can be found in war photojournalism since 1945?

This project analyzes the use of the media as a constituent element in heroization. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, photography was an important visual medium through which war was transformed from an act of society to a notion held by society in a continuous feedback loop. This analysis aims to characterize the war photographer as a model and facilitator of the heroic while also further determining specific characteristics of the visual patterns of heroization in dictatorial and democratic societies. Finally, the dissertation project will conduct a synchronic and comparative study of illustrated war reports in Germany and the United Kingdom. As a continuation of the research analyzing war photographers as heroes and hero-makers in the Second World War, the project leader promises to shed light in her forthcoming book on the ways in which the photography of the Propagandakompanien was both an exception and a model of war photography.