Public history

Beyond the collapse of language? Photographs of children in postwar Europe as performances and relational objects

This paper explores photographs of children, taken after 1945 by the
Swiss photographer Werner Bischof (1916–1954), as visual objects
and social agents. In the summer of 1945, Bischof embarked on his
first journey through war-ravaged Western Europe – specifically
Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – to
visually capture the lives of men, women, and children who had
experienced the destruction, cruelties and trauma of World War II.
Bischof’s photographic mission focused on children in particular. His
ambitions drew upon the power of photography to present, represent,
and perform, to make and articulate histories, to evoke emotions, and
to relate to and resonate with various audiences. This very agency of
photography, which has been argued by Bischof and also serves as a
central hypothesis of this paper, is intensified when a photographer
works with children and thus enhances and more strongly emphasises
photography’s inherent and irreducible agency. The paper looks at
how Bischof’s photographs, as performances, not only evoked but
also disturbed and disrupted narratives of war-ravaged Europe.

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