Confused by Photography:
From the Weimar Republic to the Arab Spring

This is based on a talk originally given at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts on March 31, 2011, and updated since.

I’d like to share a few thoughts about the Frankfurt School critics--especially Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Benjamin’s friend and comrade, Bertolt Brecht -- all of whom developed their enormously influential ideas about photography, and indeed about mass media in general, in the midst of the traumatic convulsions of the Weimar Republic. These critics were brilliant, and they were also quite confused--for good reasons--about the vast cultural changes that they were witnessing. Then I’d like leapfrog several decades--actually, almost a century-- and discuss the deluge of new media forms--digital photography, citizen journalism, Facebook, etc.-- that we have encountered the past five or 10 years. In particular, I’d like raise some questions about their relationship--if any--to the political uprisings that we are witnessing in the Middle East. Like our precedessors in Weimar, we, too, are quite confused--also for good reasons.

Weimar was modernity’s workshop, and much has been written about its explosion of creativity in social mores, sexuality, intellectual life, and the arts. Less frequently noted is what a wonderful town Berlin was for journalism and photography--especially press photography--in the Weimar years. Germany’s abolition of press censorship in 1918 unleashed a torrent of newspapers, magazines, and tabloids; by the 1920s Berlin alone boasted a phenomenal 47 daily newspapers. A photograph of the time suggests the rich abundance of the Berlin press: it shows a wide Potsdamer Platz newsstand veritably dripping with papers, like a plump bourgeois lady loaded down with jewels.

Photographs became a key part of the new journalism, which documented everything from the latest fashions and film stars to social problems, natural catastrophes, and political crises. Many criticisms can be, and were, lodged against these photography-laden newspapers and magazines. It is true that they were slow to understand the political crisis, and the depth of anti-Semitism, of the later Weimar years (although many of those publications were politically liberal and, often, edited by Jews); that they flooded their viewers with an undifferentiated mass of images, as Siegfried Kracauer charged; and that they often sought the most sensational rather than the most meaningful images. In 1932, for instance, editor Kurt Korff of the prominent weekly, BIZ, challenged the photographer James Abbé to “get me photographs of Hitler coming out of a synagogue!”

But the illustrated magazines also taught their readers new ways to see, and they made their readers’ worlds wider and more cosmopolitan. Political events became more like news and less like history: cataclysmic upheavals, such as the Communist revolt of 1919, were brought to readers almost in real-time. Politicians were shown as never before: unposed, candid, flawed. Political demonstrations, revolutions, even executions, as well as life inside mines, factories, slums, homeless shelters, drug clinics, and progressive schools, were documented; so were events in far-away countries, which now seemed not quite so far away. Pioneering editors developed a new form, the photo essay, which used photographs to create film-like narratives rather than viewing them in isolation. And to feed this voracious new press, a new institution, the photo agency, sprang up; one of the most prominent, called Dephot, was founded by a Hungarian émigré, Simon Guttmann, who was close to both the Dadaists and the Sparticists, and who gave Robert Capa his first job. Unlike Kracauer and Brecht, Guttmann viewed photography as a politically progressive force; Dephot, he wrote, was “committed to cross[ing] all frontiers between nations and classes” and to “siding with anyone who did something new and non-conformist.”

For two crucial years--before the triumph of barbarism -- this experimental, democratic culture of journalism flourished: a culture where words and images, radical politics and the avant-garde, reporters and intellectuals, fluidly mixed. (Capa frequented the same café as Walter Benjamin.) Weimar was home to members of the astonishingly fertile Hungarian diaspora of photographers, including László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi; of famed journalists and editors; and of prominent, or soon-to-be-prominent, photojournalists like Capa and Alfred Eisenstaedt. Hitler set out to eradicate this vital, rambunctious press, which he considered “too Jewish” in its skepticism, its creativity, its personnel, and its ownership. Starting in early 1933, many of Berlin’s journalists and photographers became marked men and women; in August of that year, a list of working photographers identified as Jewish or foreign was published, leading to mass purges. The journalistic community scattered with rapidity, though by the standards of the time--a time when, as Brecht would write, refugees changed countries “oftener than our shoes”--many of its members were lucky, eventually settling in Palestine, England, or the United States.


The melancholy writers of the Frankfurt School had, as my students would say, some serious “issues” with regard to the emergence of this mass press and the mass visual culture it created--especially since those new media forms were being created simultaneously with what was then a new, populist form of mass politics: that is, fascism. These critics were living in the increasingly dark shadow of an increasingly dark Europe, and it is impossible to separate their work from the maelstrom in which they lived--a maelstrom that ended, of course, in the utter catastrophe of Sobibor and Auschwitz.

Though Benjamin was in some ways highly critical of the photographic enterprise, it would be false to say that he disliked photographs. On the contrary: as a dialectician, he believed that the photograph held out liberating, indeed revolutionary, possibilities. In his essay “Little History of Photography,” originally published in 1931, Benjamin argued that photography had created a “new way of seeing,” one that brought masses of ordinary people closer to the world and would enable them “to achieve control over works of art.” Several years later, in his now enormously influential essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he wrote of the ways in which film and photography contributed to the smashing of tradition: “Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.”

For Benjamin, photography was part of the descralization of the world, which is to say part of the painful but necessary task of modernity. Equally important, Benjamin understood the subjective power of the photograph: its spooky ability to make us want to enter the world it depicts--and even, sometimes, change it. Indeed, it is this potential spur to identification and action that so distinguishes photography from other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.

But all the negatives--the critiques of photography that would come to the fore with Susan Sontag and, then, the postmodernists--were also true for Benjamin. He was highly suspicious of the passive, aestheticized society that he feared photography was helping to create: mass events--from “monster rallies” to sports events to war--were all “intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography,” he wrote. He believed that photography was a form of mystification, for it “can endow any soup can”--did he foresee the age of Warhol?--“with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists.” He distrusted photography’s ability to beautify: photography, he warned, had turned “abject poverty itself . . . into an object of enjoyment.”

Yet Benjamin also distrusted photography’s opposite attribute: its facticity. For Benjamin, photography’s claim to depict an obvious, unquestionable reality was a threat to independent, dialectical thought. With the rise of photography, he wrote, “a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions”; instead, “One appeals to the lens.” Benjamin feared that the presumably infallible, objective judgment of the camera would conquer the subjective, flawed judgment of mere men: the simplicity of the photographic world would obscure the complexity of the human world. The seductive power of film--what he called the “shock effect” of moving images-- also filled him with trepidation.

Even more than Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer regarded the photograph as a kind of diminution. Rather than presenting us with the exciting immediacy of a human character, as its advocates promised, Kracauer insisted that “the photograph is not the person but the sum of what can be subtracted from him or her. The photograph annihilates the person.” Kracauer could sound almost enraged--almost like Baudelaire, that other great foe of photography--when he wrote about photography: “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed,” Kracauer wrote. And far from revealing previously hidden realities, Kracauer believed that the photograph occludes: “In a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”

In the Weimar years, Kracauer wrote as a journalistic critic rather than a theorist, publishing almost two thousand articles and reviews in the Frankfurter Zeitung, a liberal daily newspaper. Yet he was alarmed by interwar Berlin’s cacophonous, newly uncensored, photography-drenched press.  For some of his contemporaries, this press, and especially its new and sometimes startling use of photography, was a glorious herald of modernity. “Photography!” the artist-photographer Johannes Molzahn exulted in a 1928 article. “This greatest of the physical-chemical-technical wonders of the present--this triumph of tremendous consequence!” Molzahn called photography “one of the more important tools for elucidating current problems.”

But Kracauer was decidedly unimpressed. “The flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory,” he charged. “Never before has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding.” For Kracauer, photography was, quite simply, the enemy of thought. He insisted, “The ‘image-idea’ drives away the idea. The blizzard of photographs betrays an indifference toward what the things mean.” Photographs, Kracauer believed, fight contemplation; even if the new photojournalism was practiced by thoughtful people, or political radicals, or intellectuals--which it sometimes was--it did not appeal to the intellect, and was therefore highly suspect. Still, Kracauer, like Benjamin, believed that modernity’s cultural disintegration--which these new forms of media represented to him--might radicalize the masses, and he saw photography as a key instrument in this world-historic process. Photography, by opening up the possibility of a radically altered consciousness, was, Kracauer allowed, “the go-for-broke game of history.”

Not all of Kracauer’s colleagues on the left shared his antipathy to the mass media. The Communist artists George Grosz and John Heartfield sought to disseminate their work in popular, accessible forms such as pamphlets, posters, book covers, and newspapers: the cheaper and more vernacular, the better. Heartfield’s work was inconceivable without mass-market photographs and mass-market papers, and Grosz was a fan of American popular culture. But it was Kracauer’s mandarin, often censorious tone that would flourish among successor generations of cultural critics who write about photography.

Most of all, though, it is Brecht whose shadow hangs over photography criticism and whose sensibility continues to define it. Brecht, I think it’s fair to say, really did loathe photographs, or at best deeply distrust them; in 1931 he wrote, “The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world. On the contrary, photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.” Later, Benjamin would quote Brecht: “Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality”--by which Brecht meant photography-- “reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG”--the massive German armaments and electric companies, respectively--“tells us next to nothing about these institutions.”

On one level, there is no doubt that Brecht was right. Photographs don’t explain the way the world works; they don’t offer reasons or causes; they don’t tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end. Photographs can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events. And though it’s true that photographs document the specific, they sometimes blur--dangerously blur--political and historic distinctions. A photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Barcelona from 1937 looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin in 1945, which looks much like the bombed-out buildings of Hanoi in 1972, Belgrade in 1999, or Kabul from last week. Similarly, the very recent photographs of Japanese villages reduced to rubble by the earthquake and tsunami look a lot like the Japanese cities reduced to rubble by the atom bomb. But only a vulgar reductionist would say that the events these various photographs document represent the same circumstances, the same histories, or the same causes.

But if Brecht was right about some things, he was utterly wrong about others. Far from being monopolized by the “hands of the bourgeoisie,” documentary photography has, in most times and in most places, been the purview of liberals and the left. Indeed, at about the time that Brecht was writing against photography, Robert Capa was in Barcelona and Madrid, documenting the anti-fascist struggle with an immediacy, and a passion, that had never before been captured on film. And there is no doubt that photography, precisely because of its ability to capture and to conjure emotion--its ability, that is, to help us make empathic leaps across barriers of race and nation--has been absolutely key in enlargening our concept of the human and in forging the idea of universal human rights: however partial, fitful, and unrealized that idea remains.


I’d like to turn to the present, now, and to posit that it may be as hard for us to understand our new, chaotic visual environment as it was for Weimar citizens to master theirs; we are as conflicted as were Benjamin and Kracauer. Images flood into our world in the old ways--through the printed press, films, and television--but also through cell phones, iPods, satellite dishes, social-networking sites, and the Internet. How to respond? Anxieties abound, and for good reason. On the Internet all photographs are equal: including doctored, manipulated, or constructed photographs and those without any meaningful--or with entirely false--contexts. How can we distinguish between them--and what of those who do not care about such distinctions? Thus the photography critic Andy Grundberg has warned,  “Those in power benefit from this abandonment of discernment; they get to make the choices for us. Thus the liberty of an unchecked image environment may prove to be less a blessing than a subtle form of tyranny, and the democracy of the camera [may prove to be] a perverse kind of fascism.”

Certainly the new visual technologies have changed the relationship between information, propaganda, and war. The Taliban, for instance--which used to ban photographs, movies, and television as ungodly--now has its own video production unit, called “Ummat,” which sends its photographers to photograph and film its atrocities as they occur, and which then posts its advertisements for jihad--its videos of suicide bombings and beheadings--on the web; so do Al Queda and other terrorist groups. Daniel Pearl’s beheading is only the best known of these horror films.

Still, as the photojournalist Gilles Peress and many others have argued, digital photography in particular and the Internet in general might also herald unprecedented possibilities for new, more egalitarian forms of visual participation, and be a boon to human-rights activists everywhere. If digital photography has made viewers more skeptical about the reality-quotient of photographs--just what the postmoderns had hoped--it has also made the making, transmitting, and seeing of pictures incomparably easier, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before, and has given to rise to all sort of organizations--such as PhotoVoice, Pixel Press, and scores of others--that use photography and film as part of their human-rights work.

The inspiring, and sometimes bloody, photographs we saw from the 2009 Iranian protests--and, more recently, from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria--lend credence to the optimistic, pro-democracy interpretation of the new media. Many of those photographs were taken by non-professionals on their cell phones, then quickly circulated all over the world; one could find them everywhere from the front pages of major newspapers to Facebook.

Yet the techno-utopianism these photographs have prompted--some writers have hailed these movements as “Twitter Revolutions,” YouTube revolutions, Facebook revolutions, Internet revolutions--strikes me as premature, vastly overblown, and just plain wrong for several reasons. (Frank Rich, then a columnist for the New York Times, noted--correctly--that this analysis is itself a form of “Western chauvinism.”) First, cell phones, the Internet, Facebook, etc., have been a presence in many parts of the Arab world for over a decade; and so in looking at this explosion of mass protests, we must look further for both the candle and the match. Second, the vast majority of people in Arab and Muslim countries have no access to Twitter feeds or the Internet--indeed, in some of these countries, there are large numbers of people, especially women, who are not even literate--which means that if in fact these revolutions are “caused” by social media, they have zero chance of building democratic, mass movements: Social media is, generally, the province of elites--and of young elites at that. And alas, it must be noted that the constitutional referendum held in March of 2011 in Egypt was a resounding defeat for the forces of secularists and the left.

In fact, the building of democratic institutions--establishing the rule of law, of independent trade unions and political parties, of a free press, etc.-- requires something very different than does mobilizing large numbers of people to attend a street demonstration. If sturdy democracies are to be built in the Arab world, they will require what sturdy democracies everywhere else require, which is the free interchange of ideas among free citizens in a genuinely open--not secretive--political space where debate can flourish. Huddling anonymously in front of computer screens and communicating with so-called “friends” whom you have never met is advantageous, indeed necessary, in a police state, but it should not be romanticized as some sort of great leap forward, and it doth not a democracy make. Democracies require trust, the opposite of secrecy and anonymity: both of which the Internet fosters. And revolutions require leadership, which means, dare I say, hierarchies--the opposite of the radical, and I would argue misleading, egalitarianism that the Internet fosters.

Iran is a case in point. It has what is almost certainly the best educated, most tech-savvy, most cosmopolitan and most politically sophisticated population of any Muslim country in the world, yet its Green Movement is--at least for now--crushed, and a state of terror reigns. Since the 2009 revolt, Iran’s courtrooms have hosted numerous, disgusting show trials; its jails have filled with political prisoners, who are subjected to rape and other state-sponsored tortures; the universities are being purged of progressive faculty; numerous publications have been silenced;and the number of executions has skyrocketed. It was the old-fashioned forces--the old-fashioned guns--of the police, the Revolutionary Guards, and the army that determined the outcome in Iran (as they did, to a large extent though to opposite effect, in Tunisia and Egypt). Tweets, it turned out, were no match for the armed force of the Iranian state. The media gurus who were so quick to hail Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution--a revolution that did not, in fact, occur--have been strangely silent about the all-too-real counterrevolution.

Indeed, the Iranian opposition movement has launched into a painful self-critique of its reliance on the Internet. After the failure of the so-called Trojan Horse demonstration of February 2010, one Iranian blogger wondered, “Where were the Greens of Tehran?” Then he answered: “On the Internet reading about the Trojan horse plan; On YouTube learning about the ‘action’; [or] chatting online in the afternoon about where to meet in the  morning.” Or, as the Iranian opposition writer Afsanah Moqadam (a pseudonym) wrote, in his book called “Death to the Dictator!”, a first-person account of the 2009 movement:

“Iranians discover that they have an ambivalent attitude toward technology. Cell phone cameras, Facebook, Twitter, the satellite stations: the media are supposed to reflect what is going on, but they seem, in fact, to be making everything happen much faster.

There’s no time to argue what it all means--what the protestors want, [or] if they’re ready to die. The movement rolls forward, gathering speed, and no one really knows where it’s going.”

What it all means: there, surely, is the crux of any revolution, and the key to the mystery of how it will unfold. What it all means: the fear that photography and other forms of mass media would prevent a mass audience from discerning meaning was precisely what worried, indeed tormented, the Frankfurt critics.

And two can play the technology game--any technology game. Brecht thought that radio would be the great democratic tool: and sometimes it has been. Except that in Rwanda, in 1994, the  genocide was organized, broadcast, and mobilized through the radio broadcasts of the immensely popular Hutu Power stations.

And so it is with today’s new forms of media: They are undeniably populist, but certainly not inherently democratic--a distinction that, I fear, is being lost. Indeed, the Iranian government itself encouraged the use of social media sites in the run-up to the stolen 2009 election: Ahmadinejad can be found on Facebook, as can the Ayatollah.  (Yes, you, too, can “friend” the Ayatollah--or, for that matter, follow Ahmadinejad’s Twitter feed for timely updates from the dictator, such as “No Israel in new Mideast”.) As for the Iranian blogosphere: it is filled, undeniably, with opposition voices--secular blogs, leftist blogs, Marxist blogs, feminist blogs; and filled, also undeniably, with religious-fundamentalist blogs, Basiji blogs, pro-government blogs, and fans of Ahmadinejad blogs. Indeed, Qom, Iran’s religious center of fundamentalist learning, is now known as “the Internet Technology capital” of the country.

Equally important, the Iranian state has turned the use of the Internet and of social networking sites on their heads, so to speak. The police have used electronic trails to track down thousands of regime opponents; and, according to Human Rights Watch, the government has created an “online surveillance center and is believed to be behind a ‘cyberarmy’ of hackers that it can unleash against opponents.”

My point is not, however, the relatively simple one (albeit true) that virtually any form of media, and any form of technology, can be used for liberation or for reaction. What troubles me is that the fixation on media and technology--a fixation fostered by the U.S. press, but I suspect by other presses, too--is a too-easy, too-convenient evasion of political thinking. And this was, ironically, precisely what the Frankfurt School critics feared about the new forms of mass media: Recall, for example, of Kracauer warning that photographs--the “image idea”--would drive away thought.

The recent uprising in Egypt, for instance, has often been portrayed, at least in the U.S. press, as a spontaneous event fostered by Facebook. How many people know that the Egyptian activists--or rather a small, key group of them--planned for years for the events that unfolded in Tahir Square; that they went out into the streets to organize amongst urban workers; that they met with the leaders of Otpor, the anti-Milosevic student movement, who trained them in militant nonviolence; that they carefully studied the works of radical nonviolent democracy theorists such as the American organizer, Eugene Sharp? How many people can explain, or are even interested in, the politics of the Tunisian opposition--or, for that matter, of Libya’s or Syria’s? How many people know the numbers of jailed and missing political activists (yes, still) in Egypt, as opposed to the number of days the Internet was shut down? How many people know how busy the Iranian executioners have been--as opposed to how many Iranians use Twitter? A quick Google search (and yes, I know this isn’t how real research is done!) of “executions in Iran, 2010” turns up 389,000 matches; a quick Google search of “Iran and the twitter revolution” turns up over nine million.

Social media--indeed, any media--can never replace political parties, strategies, programs, or leadership. The new danger, I fear, is that information freedom will become synonymous with--that is, become a substitute for--real political and civic freedom. A corollary danger is that the accoutrements of modern technology--cellphones, digital cameras, the Internet, Facebook--will be mistaken for modernity itself.

It might behoove us to remember that the medium isn’t the message: the message is the message. The obsession with the medium is occluding our ability to understand that message: or, rather, that plethora of messages, none of which can be boiled down to a Tweet, a soundbite, or a photograph.

Iran taught us--and, I suspect, so will Tunisia and Egypt and Lebanon and Yemen and Libya and Syria--and, eventually, even China--that democratic images and populist forms of communication can inspire a democracy and strengthen a democracy, but they can not create one or sustain one. Only people--working in open solidarity with each other--can do that.

The Frankfurt School critics were, I believe, too rejecting, too critical, of the new forms of media, especially photography, that they encountered. We are making the opposite, albeit equally serious, mistake when we conflate new forms of media with democracy and, even, revolution. It would be good to remember that while technology is easy, democracy, freedom, and justice are hard.


Susie Linfield is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the graduate journalism department at New York University.