Assignment 4 – “A picture is worth a thousand words”

Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice.

For this assignment I have chosen a photograph taken by my father. This is just one of the photographs in an album which I found in my mother’s house after she died. Unfortunately my father died when I was still a teenager, so there is nobody alive now who could offer any first hand information on the content of these photographs.

During the Second World War my father was a fire fighter, working in our home town of Chelmsford in Essex, and in the outskirts of London during the blitz. Towards the end of the war he volunteered to travel across the channel with soldiers who were in the process of liberating Europe from the Nazis. He ended up in Belgium, billeted within a few miles of the German border in a village called Trooz.

This photograph was probably taken in the nearby town of Liège. It is a small photograph, being a contact print from a 120 negative. I still have my father’s box camera although I think it is unlikely that it was the camera used to take this photograph.

It is one of a series of photographs taken during and after the liberation, including photographs of the victory parade in Antwerp, with crowds of people standing in the Town Square, to the extent of having to climb on lampposts to see what is happening.

This photograph however is one of a painting on the wall in what may have been a Nazi headquarters. The painting appears to show four of the commanding officers painted as characters on playing cards. Underneath are the words Blau Pfeif which translates as Blue Whistle, alongside what I assume is the name of the artist and the date 1942.

At this stage of the war Belgium had been under Nazi rule for two years and they would have been well established in this area, having taken Liege in 1940 in just three days of fighting.

It is impossible to tell from a black and white image what ranks the officers were or the what division they were part of, however it seems likely that they were officers of a Panzer division. Judging by the presence or lack of pips on their epaulettes, the two on the left were probably of Oberleutnant (Senior lieutenant) rank whilst the two on the right were Unteroffizier meaning non-commissioned officers, or the equivalent of a sergeant in the British army. As such they were not particularly high within the hierarchy of the German command. The suit symbols on these cards are also interesting, as they are those from ancient Prussian playing cards, rather those of contemporary German cards. This shows the way in which the Nazis were looking back to the days of Prussian power which existed before the First World War.

To me this picture tells of the arrogance of the Nazis. To have decorated a wall in this way is a form of propaganda. Other photographs taken by my father show that all the walls in the room were covered in this type of wall art. Was this to impress the junior ranks and keep them in line, or was it perhaps a room for interrogation, where prisoners of the Reich were made to confess under torture?

The person on the ladder is presumably one of the liberators, either a soldier, or perhaps another member of the fire brigade. I get the impression that he is on the ladder ready to use a bucket of paint to obliterate the Nazi propaganda. That might explain why my father took the photograph, to record the wall painting before it was destroyed as if it was just a normal piece of graffiti.

The ‘snake’ curling around the ribbon at the bottom looks very much like a fire hose, so does that mean that perhaps my father and his colleagues had commandeered a Nazi fire station for their own use? I have no idea, but what is the meaning of the fish hanging from the nozzle? I don’t know exactly, but the symbol of a fish bears a great resemblance to the Odal rune, a symbol of racial hatred used by some divisions of the Nazi SS, and still used by current Neo-Nazi groups in Germany.

If there is any punctum in this image, for me it is on the right hand edge where you can see some writing. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes defines Punctum as something within the image which punctures the viewer. Something which is not an intention of the photographer but which catches the viewer’s eye. These words can hardly be seen, but hold my attention and make me wonder what they say.

In fact we can see a tiny bit more of this inscription in another of my father’s photographs, and although we can only see the German words for danger (Gefähr) and safety (Sicherheit) it can be seen to be a quotation from Friedrich Der Grosse or Frederick the Great of Prussia. Unfortunately even after many hours of research I have been unable to find any quotation from Frederick the Great which contains these words.

I suppose that what I have described here is largely the artwork rather than the actual photograph, but it is the person on the ladder who turns this into a photograph rather than just a straight reproduction of the Nazi propaganda. Although you can only see his face in profile, the stern look on his face and the pointing finger indicate the shock and surprise at some of the things that the liberating armies found as they entered the areas of Nazi occupation. Although this image is far less powerful than, say, the images of Belsen and Auschwitz, it is part of the same genre, images which show the horror of war.

I have been searching the internet to find any other evidence of this type of wall painting. So far I have found only one example, and that was in Berlin. There appear to be few pictures of this type of art, nor can I find many writings about Nazi propaganda wall art. Although my father was not a photographer, just a ‘snapper’, with this image he managed to produce a unique piece of documentary photography.

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