The Photograph As Historical Evidence


Here is a picture of a happy young chap that I came across recently at a small exhibition of photographs by Kätthe Buchler.*  Buchler was a keen amateur photographer who turned her lens on the home front during the First World War and civilian involvement in the war effort.  Her unquestioning, patriotic pictures show the country throwing itself into support for the troops at the front: smiling women do men’s jobs, smiling nurses look after tastefully bandaged troops and smiling women look after babies in war nurseries.  The smile, too, it seems was a patriotic duty.  But there again, Willy looks genuinely pleased with that magnificent white rabbit on his knee.  He is known as The Collecting King for good reason: children collected waste for the war effort and those who collected most won the prize of the rabbit.

In her very informative notes, the exhibition’s historical curator, Professor Melanie Tebbutt of Manchester Metropolitan University’s History Research Centre, says children were the unseen casualties of the war which damaged them psychologically (for example, through the absence of male figures) and physically (through malnutrition).  What do the photographs articulate from the child’s perspective she asks.  And that is a very interesting question.

From the child’s perspective the photograph shows a very happy boy with a magnificent white rabbit.  We might quite legitimately speculate about the effects of war on children given the photograph’s date but that is speculation – it is not articulated by the photographs.  I don’t see any objection to using a photograph as a platform for historical research or as evidence in historical narratives but I do think it is problematic to suggest that a photograph itself makes historical statements.  A more conservative historical reading of the picture might be, for example, that at least local attempts were made by the German state to protect children from the realities of the war by making the collection of waste into a fun competition with great prizes.  Might the picture not also support that speculative view?   Any attempt to place a photograph in a historical narrative must involve a retrospective reading of the photograph from a very specific viewpoint.  Essentially, you have to argue that it fits into a pattern of other evidence.

Strictly speaking, all that this photograph evidences is that Willy has a rabbit which appears to make him very happy.   Put it together with the photograph below and we begin to see that there was some sort of context.

willy 2.jpg

 We don’t know what Willy was thinking.   Maybe he was going to get into big trouble when he got home because his family didn’t have enough money to feed the rabbit.  Or maybe they would have fattened it for the pot.  We just don’t know.  It seems unlikely however, given the conservative and patriotic nature of the photographs, that Katthe Buchler’s intention was to show anything other than a smiling and supportive home front.

What we do know, and what gives the pictures of the children great poignancy is that, a little over twenty years later the European powers would once again be in armed conflict and Willy and his friends would one way or another have been participating adults – perhaps as enthusiastic Nazis, perhaps as opponents of the regime.  By then the rabbits, the collecting and the photographs might well have seemed to them evidence of happier times.

*(The exhibition “Beyond The Battlefields” has been showing at Manchester Metropolitan University School of Art’s Grosvenor Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester and now moves to the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield until 5 May, 2018)

(Both photographs ©Estate of Käthe Buchler – Museum für Photographie Braunschweig/ Deposit Stadtarchive Braunschweig)