Pain unites people. When people are powerless and fearful, they look for proximity. If people don’t know how to deal with grief, they hold on to one another.
In an image by Magnum photographer Marc Rimboud, four women, confined to a miniscule space are in that very situation. One holds a child in her arms, another has her head between her hands, one closes her mouth as if wanting to suppress a scream. They all have faces that are painted by pain: these women have just lost their husbands, husbands who were hanged by Pakistani militants in Bangladesh in 1971.
In his image, Mr. Riboud has captured the lowest point in the lives of these women. His perspective on the scene is intimate but maintains a respectful distance. The viewer is given a chance to look into the abyss of human pain and become an observer as well as a witness.
The photograph of the weeping women is the first of many in the Hamburg exhibition entitled “Das Engagierte Bild” (“The Dedicated Picture”).
It is a small exhibition in the Museum for the Arts and Craft with about 40 photographs hung along the walls of a long hallway. Many are black and white and were taken in the 1960s.
It is a moving exhibition and, in a tragic way, timeless because it throws up questions that need to be answered again and again, such as what moral criteria are necessary for documenting pain and loss. What perspectives are legitimate in this process?
It is after the Second World War that photojournalism experienced a heyday and became a unique, recognized form of storytelling.
The photographs seem like a gallery fuelled by the German notion of weltschmerz – sentimental pessimism.
In Germany, magazines such as the weekly Stern and the now-extinct publication Kristall, added this style of photography to their articles. The photographers of these images dared to step out into an unknown world. They documented and portrayed what they saw. It was their ambition to take pictures that persuaded, influenced and made a difference.
Robert Lebeck, a photographer from Berlin, was one of the pioneers of this style of photography. In the early 1960s, he flew to Hong Kong, roamed the streets and took pictures of everyday life. He documented one Chinese family that had fled to the British colony, and had made a home for themselves on the streets. The roof was constructed of cardboard, chairs and suitcases were lying on top of them. Their heads hung low, their stares were fixed on the ground below them.
Mr. Lebeck became a political ethnographer and meandered across the continents. In Calcutta, he went to see Mother Theresa’s hospital ward. Jürgen Heinemann, another German photographer, travelled to Brazil to observe helpers hand out bread, and created images of what he perceived to be an existential war for food. Japanese photographer Ryuchi Hirokawa witnessed a massacre of Palestinian refugees and took shocking photographs of children’s dead bodies. Women, hidden under their clothing, stand next to the slain children and swing their arms up in the air, full of desperation and grief. These pictures are images of excessive horror.
In the exhibition, the photographs are hung close together and seem like a gallery fuelled by the German notion of weltschmerz – sentimental pessimism.
All photographers represented in the display were in pursuit of that one central motive that condenses a particular event with the potential to become an iconic moment in history. No matter where the photographs were taken, they had one clear goal: to witness the threat to humanity.
The exhibition “Das Engagierte Bild” runs in Hamburg until 15th January 2015.
This article appeared in Die Zeit.