From 07 November to 04 February, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is showing a striking exhibition on a little-known aspect of the roots of 20th century social documentary photography, Photographie, arme de classe [which roughly translates as ‘Photography as a weapon in the class struggle’]. Curated by Damarice Amao, Florian Ebner and Christian Joschke, the show deals with a comparatively unknown period in French photo history, from the end of the 1920s to the arrival of the Front populaire government of 1936 – when the socialist, communist and radical parties formed a short-lived coalition to govern France, with the tacit backing of the Soviet Union.
Photographer and activist Henri Tracol (1909-1997) was the first to formulate the idea that photography could be an “arme de classe”, in the tract he wrote for the photographer’s section of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires [‘Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists’ aka the AEAR], formed in 1932. Although this communist front, Moscow-sponsored organisation only lasted a few years, it attracted many of the leading figures of the day from art, theatre, literature, architecture, and particularly photography. Those who joined were either fellow travellers or politically attached to communism, seeing it as a bastion against the twin evils of the time – fascism and capitalism.
In 1997, a document titled A Study of Assassination was released by the CIA as part of the Freedom of Information Act. It is believed to have been created in 1953 with the purpose of instructing agents on how to kill, and was released with a collection of files relating to the 1954 CIA-backed overthrow of the-then newly-elected leader of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. The operation in Guatemala was lobbied for by United Fruit Company, an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit, mainly bananas, and which wielded huge power in Central America at the time.
When he found out about these documents, George Selley was instantly captivated, and his new project, A Study of Assassination, combines pages from the manual with archival press images, banana advertisements and Cold War propaganda. BJP caught up with the recent London College of Communication MA graduate to find out more about this project and his approach to images.
In terms of history and photography, 1938 was a significant year. With Germany’s annexation of Austria, the Munich Agreement, the November Pogrom and the Évian Conference, which addressed the international response to the refugee crisis, it was a decisive point in time, with repercussions that would shape generations to come. It was also the year that six iconic photographers, who would document this shifting world, were born. This spring, the occasion will be honoured with a special celebration at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, titled 1938. Birthday Party with Guests. Initiated to commemorate the 80th anniversary of German photographer Heinrich Riebesehl, whose archive is housed at the museum, the exhibition evolved into a wider historical survey that sketches an international perspective on the second half of the 20th century. Joining Riebesehl are Johan van der Keuken, Josef Koudelka, Boris Mikhailov, Daido Moriyama and Helga Paris. For curator Inka Schube, this wave of artists born in 1938 represents a very particular generation: those who experienced the Second World War as children, too young to remember much more than playing in its rubble but growing up in the world it created.