Assignment 2: Der Grund

This project starts with a family album cliche: last October, my father hands me a box of photographs of his father, dating almost entirely from the time 1941-1945. I always knew my gran’s photographs, which for the past 12 years lived in their photo albums in what was my teenage bedroom. Between c1976-1992 she and I looked at them again and again: her, with longing, recounting her youth; I in fascination over my gran as a young woman only slightly older to what I would soon be myself. She often wore the League of German Girls (BDM) uniform in these photographs. I only have known my grandfather as a young man through a couple of photographs in her albums from around 1939-41. I have known and loved him right through my childhood and up until he died when I was 30 years of age.

This box of about 200 photographs constitutes my archive for this project; it is neither public nor easily accessible; instead it is almost the opposite: hidden and fairly private.
I view his images through what he saw. His subjects were known to him: comrades, superiors, friends, possibly lovers; fellow Germans, mostly Luftwaffe personnel, some civilian men and women, all based at a munition camp outside Oslo in Nazi-occupied Norway. They were the occupying force. One wouldn’t guess from the photographs if it wasn’t for the mens’ uniforms. There is a lot of raspberry-picking, coffee tables, theatre performances, a few explosion tests – he was an ammunition technician, a bomb defuser as he would explain to me as a small child. Of course, he was also a bomb builder, as I would realise later. The ones defusing the bombs were generally concentration camp inmates. They were often killed in the process.
It takes me several weeks to notice an absence: many of his subjects have no feet; they seem to have feet missing in incidental ways. Frequently, the ground that they stand on seems invisible, perhaps not even present at all?
I notice this absence and wonder if he noticed it too? When taking the photo? When seeing the print? Maybe when seeing the prints after the war from which he returned unharmed, with only a short spell as a British PoW, quickly declared de-nazified, as so many of his contemporaries.

My grandfather is also the subject in some of the images. Him and his comrades clearly shared photographs, so I see him how his comrades saw him. At least one photograph is however an — unintended — self-portrait. He, too, is without feet.

I started to take my own photographs interested in this absence. Seeking my feet on camera to stand in, I quickly discover, requires something to stand on. And yet, a stable footing on the ground that I have sought out for myself is difficult to find.

‘Ground’ in German also means ‘reason’ — as much as ungrounded is unreasonable in English.
This series is at once a labour of love and an act of refusal. I discover how close these two intentions are for me in one of my last photographs. My gesture of refusal, of turning away, towards the wall, mirrors almost exactly his own self-portrait seventy-five years previous, possibly even down to the hands that are placed on my hips. His and my photographs confirm that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter.

What ground did these men and women stand on? What grounds did they have?

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The photobook is embedded as a link to this first image.

Sample images from the book are further down.

Note on image qualities of scans: I currently have only a low-quality scan of the images in my grandfather’s box. I am intending to retake these as photographs and/or high quality scans for a final version of this assignment.

 

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