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Culture

How women photographed European wars

From seemingly carefree moments to death on the battlefield: An exhibition in Berlin shows works by female war photographers in Europe between WWI and WWII.

The death of German photo reporter Anja Niedringhaus, killed by an Afghan police officer in 2014, was a tragic reminder of how war photography remains a men's domain.

At the same time, women reporting from and fighting in wars are no present-day phenomenon.

Revealing impressions from the battlefield and the home front, Berlin's Das Verborgene Museum (The Hidden Museum) is showcasing about 70 photos, graphics, magazines and documents from women who were photojournalists during the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War.

Peaceful on the surface

The exhibition includes photos of injured soldiers in military hospitals, fighting at the front, or peaceful moments away from the action, as well as dead bodies on the battlefield. Another work shows Rotterdam, heavily bombed in 1940 by the German Luftwaffe.

Photos taken by correspondents Natalja Bode and Olga Lander, who were hired by the Red Army to accompany the Battle of Stalingrad, are being shown outside the former Soviet Union for the first time.

soldiers, train (FotoSojus)

Red Army soldiers on their way home in 1945, by Natalja Bode

Gerda Taro's works are also prominently on show. She was working alongside the International Brigades when she was killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, at the age of 26. Today, she is remembered as Europe's best-known female war photographer.

Read more: 80 years of war photography with Robert Capa and Gerda Taro

Do women war photographers' pictures take a special, female view of events? Are they recognizably taken by women?

Elisabeth Moortgat, a member of the museum's board, rolls her eyes – she has asked herself that very question many times, and hasn't found an answer. "I think a person's point of view is shaped individually by their upbringing, their surroundings – and in that context, a woman's circumstances naturally play a role," the art historian told DW.

Commissioned by the military

The photographers also had to take into account their clients, who were often the military, service magazines or state agencies. They were tasked with taking pictures that would show the troops' readiness for action to boost the population's belief in victory.

Often, their photos were part of a country's propaganda. After World War I, Germany decided the pictures didn't show enough expertise, so "during Word War II, photographers were first trained in various branches of the military, which had an effect on the pictures they took," Elisabeth Moortgat says.

Still today, so-called embedded journalism is criticized for not being independent, but rather too close to the military for critical, objective reporting.

Two soldiers lie on the ground in the mouintains (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

A dangerous vantage point for the photographer, Alice Schalek

Various portrayals

There are differences in the various military forces' depictions, according to Margot Blank of the German-Russian Museum in Berlin

"The visual depiction of the concept of the enemy was much more pronounced in the Wehrmacht's propaganda group than the Red Army," Blank says, adding that pictures taken by the Soviet Army tended to document the enemy rather than create an image of the enemy.

The employment of female war photographers varied from country to country. In Germany, women were barred from the front: The Nazis saw women purely as housewives and mothers. That attitude became increasingly untenable as the war progressed, and it was difficult for the Nazis to give it up, Elisabeth Moortgat says.

Other countries also liked to propagate the image of the caring, thoughtful woman, but Britain, Poland and the Soviet Union allowed women at the front in both World Wars. Women were certainly needed in men's jobs everywhere on the home front.

two women 1916, conductors (Museum für Photographie Braunschweig)

The coats are too big: Two women conductors in 1916, by Käthe Buchler

The works by British photographer Christina Broom and Germany's Käthe Buchler are striking in that they show women doing what was still back then a man's job, as officers of the women's police force, carrying heavy loads or delivering mail.

The exhibition also answers the question whether women are by nature pacifist. Beginning in 1915, the first accredited war photographer, an Austrian woman by the name of Alice Schalek, provided not just photos but also glorified eye-witness reports from the battlefield. Schalek's love of adventure is best documented by a picture that had her crouching on a mountain pass behind Austro-Hungarian soldiers, weapons at the ready.

The exhibition "Women Photojournalists in Europe 1914-1945" at Berlin's Das Verborgene Museum runs through February 11, 2018.

 

 

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