Images on a Looted Camera
On Dieter Keller, Das Auge Des Krieges/The Eye of War, published by Buchkunst Berlin (2020)
A man becomes a soldier and goes to Ukraine, where his army wages an illegal occupational war. He witnesses and perhaps even perpetrates war crimes, although we do not know. Defying orders, he makes images of the war. Neither a photographer by trade nor a journalist or propagandist, his photographs serve no utilitarian purpose. For 49 years, they remain a secret. When they are published long after his death, they are a mystery. Can we discern a feeling of guilt and repentance in these images of war, burning buildings, dead children, and starving animals? In 1942, Dieter Keller was secretly a photographer in the Nazi army.
A man becomes a soldier and goes to Ukraine, where his army wages an illegal occupational war. He witnesses and perhaps even perpetrates war crimes. He makes images of the war that do not end up on social media, as his army has issued strict orders against it. On the other side of the trenches (because the trenches have returned too), the evidence of war crimes is documented by hundreds of war photographers, civilians with cell phones, surveillance cameras, drones and satellites. And while no secret photographer has emerged, without a doubt, Russian soldiers take thousands of images every day, just like the rest of us. In the war archive yet to come, will we also be looking for evidence of guilt and repentance?
Between the two invasions, 80 years have passed. The technology of war and documentation changed, as has the invader’s name, but the purpose of war remains the same. And so the photographs have the same subjects again: burning buildings and dead children, starving animals.
But there’s something “different” in Keller’s only known photographic work that sets it apart from other war photographs and archives. The biographical postscript explains: before and during the war, Keller was a “close friend of artists from the New Objectivity and the German Bauhaus Movements… These contacts shaped his artistic vision and significantly influenced his photographic compositions.” Even at first glance, this much rings true. Unlike a war journalist, Keller has no obsession with capturing the “decisive moment” nor creating didactic information about the war. His compositions are precise. The frames are either dense with detail or tending towards emptiness, and he has a sense of light and tone. He prefers a wide shot to a close-up as if always aiming for the “bigger picture.” He takes time to frame his images, no matter how gruesome they might be.
In the first image, a bright orb burns amidst the clouds over an empty field and centre frame. Is it the sun or a flare exploding in the distance? Then images of a burning field, with burning huts. A tree still grows next to a barn on fire. Soldiers marching in line—are they Soviet prisoners of war, or German soldiers, going eastward? A man with a horse ploughing an empty field. A mangled foot is sticking out of the ground. The statue of Lenin, broken. The face of a dead horse against the ground. In a replicating composition, the skull of a dead horse. A suspended cot of a child resembles a tiny coffin, the baby asleep in it, as the light throws itself on the floor. Women in headscarves, distressed. A starving horse. The chopped-off heads of geese form a square (or a swastika) on the ground. Living children. Hungry children. Bewildered children. A child in a cap in front of a Hebrew inscription. A ruined cathedral. Shadows on the wall, then a child with a mutilated face in a field, then another. A disembodied hand sticking out of the ground. Burning fields, the mutilated body of a woman in a field, a cowherd and cows, a tree over a canyon, the snow glimmering with a toad in centre frame, a mutilated hand and a mutilated foot. Burning buildings, dead children, and starving animals.
Looking at photographs of war, especially those of artistic quality such as these, creates a temptation to universalise all wars. A destroyed home is any home, a dead child is any child. And, for an instant, the houses and children we have never seen before become our homes and our children. An image of a dead soldier reduces him to a fact of flesh, uniform torn off, just like the rest of us. Death has momentarily made us equal. The most haunting and famous photographs of war render irrelevant the nationality of the people in them. Recognising this, we want to shout out the cliche: “All wars are civil wars! All men are brothers!”
Susan Sontag, in that definitive essay on war photography, noted how easily a war photograph could change its meaning:
“To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused.”
In The Eyes of War, there are no captions. It is as if our knowledge of history should be sufficient to provide all the context necessary to appreciate these images’ gravity. We do not know, yet we can imagine the terrible fate awaited the children photographed in the Jewish quarter. We know nothing of the dead in the fields as if their identity is secondary to the fact that they became victims of war. The afterword by Adam Broomberg and Xiaofu Wang fictionalises the first-person perspective of Keller and closes by describing a photograph of a dead boy: “He looks like he is dreaming about something far away. The Mississippi or the Volga?”
Yet the Volga does not flow through Ukraine. Generalising war, geography, and history only sentimentalises the very corporal and factual violence that its victims have endured. It reduces the complexities of war to the randomness of natural disasters. Up until this year, most people in the Western world hardly paid any attention to Russia’s history of colonial conquest and perhaps cannot distinguish between the suffering endured during WW2 in separate Soviet republics, much like they cannot distinguish between the cultural nuances of territories formerly under Russian control.
Looking at the photographs from the perspective of the present day, it would be difficult to imagine Keller having anything but compassion for the victims of war that he photographed. Isn’t his choice of subject evidence enough of his sensitivity? Animals, especially horses, appear as often as humans in the collection. Keller photographs the head of a dead horse in the same style that he photographs a dead human body, using the same angle and framing for both subjects. Can we overlook that the images were made by a soldier on active duty?
Only in 4 out of the 95 photographs in the book the gaze of Keller’s subjects meets the camera directly. The first one in the book, on page 47, is a young girl looking back at the photographer on a porch as if she has just turned around and was surprised to see Keller there. This begins a small series of photographs of children. The girl on the next page smiles shyly and looks out of the frame. The seemingly malnourished child with the shaved head on the page after looks down. And on the next page, the child in a tattered adult’s coat looks away from the frame too. Next, however, a bewildered-looking girl, standing up against the wall stares angrily into the camera. And a page later, a boy in a cap is smiling at Keller, standing in front of a Jewish inscription. Much further in the book, an old cowherd looks back at Keller, his eyes obscured by the shadow of his cap. Was Keller wearing his uniform when taking the photos? Was his gun holstered in his belt when he told the girl to lean against the wall?
Everyone else who looks back at Keller is a corpse. The one remaining eye of a dead Soviet soldier, around 18 years of age, is just to the right of the centre frame, much like the eye of the rotting horse in the adjacent photograph. The other dead youth looks back, his face fixed in a grimace. But the dead don’t make gestures with their eyes. It is only Keller composing the frame around them.
For the outside observers of war, war and sentimentality seem incompatible and exclusive. We cling to that other cliche that “beauty will save the world” and find it impossible to believe that monsters can produce meaningful images and works of art. One isn’t inclined to humanise the enemy like that. But then we forget that masculine sentimentality is often used to justify and sustain war. A man wrote the following lines “Half the morning’s gone./ Coming down the hills / A strong and strapping wolf/Bit half the morning off/ And in his heart it went/ Up to the hills, to the wilds” and then went on to lead the genocide of Bosnians in Srebrenica. In Pawel Pawlikowski’s documentary Serbian Epics, Karadzic’s troops sing folk songs and recite poetry as they prepare to lay siege to civilians in Sarajevo. The sentimental nature of the songs only proves to them that their culture is the superior one, and their battle a just one.
Similarly, Soviet and then Russian cultural policy has rejected anything but the glorification, and simultaneous sentimentalisation of Soviet role in WW2. Any film that has introduced nuance to the narrative (such as Aleksei German’s Trial on the Road) was either quickly banned or ignored. So when Putin equated Ukrainians to Nazis, only an insignificant number of Russians questioned this rhetoric. Not all wars are civil wars, as not all men are brothers.
The Eye of War doesn’t give us much to judge Keller’s character. The biographical notes are dry and factual. Keller’s father was an influential art publisher. Keller married, collected art, and maintained strong friendships with various German artists. He owned a villa and hired his friend Oskar Schlemmer to paint a mural titled “Family”. He served in the Wehrmacht in 41 and 42, mostly on administrative duties. In 42, his father used his influence to get his son out of the collapsing Eastern front. Afterwards, he worked as a publisher himself. Suffering from Parkinson’s, Keller died in 1985. As for his motivations for photographing, the editorial note posits that the collection of images “demonstrates that the photographer uses aesthetic perception as a key to his own reality processing and mental coping.”
A brief technical detail, mentioned in passing, complicates the story: “Keller used a so-called Fedka camera, a Soviet Leica counterfeit.” How did Keller acquire the Fedka? Was it bartered for an extra ration with a civilian in the occupied territories? Was it stolen from a house? Was it looted from the body of a dead soldier?
Three months into Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s 24th Mechanised Brigade destroyed a Russian armoured vehicle, killing its crew in the process. Inside the vehicle, they found a small Sony camera, intact with photos of a Ukrainian family on vacation and then photographs of Russian soldiers taking a break from fighting somewhere in the woods. They had looted the camera from the family’s apartment in Hostomel, not so far from Kyiv and not so far from Bucha. The photos show the soldiers eating lunch on the roadside and hanging out as a group. They’re rather unremarkable, out-of-focus and overexposed. The Ukrainian army comfortably used these photos for its informational warfare campaign, mocking the Russians and promising to return the camera to the family. If the images were more aestheticised in their vision, I doubt they’d be celebrated the same way that Keller’s photographs are celebrated now.
Keller did not publish the images in his lifetime. And while the book posits that he was mostly confined to administrative duties, we know nothing of his ideological convictions or his personal feelings towards the enemy that he photographed dead in a ditch. We deduce from the images that he must have been a highly sensitive man, not impervious to the suffering of children, civilians and even animals. Yet he wasn’t an artist on the frontline or even a photojournalist. He belonged to a different category altogether: the active participant of war. How much of the suffering was he complicit in?
In the timeline that serves as a postscript to the book, a single line mentions that in 1985, the negatives of the photographs have self-combusted. I struggle not to assign some deeper, magical meaning to this chemical event. It would be better for these images not to exist, not because of the lack of artistry, or because the perpetrator’s perspective should be anathema, or because it would be better to forget, but simply because wars bring nothing but sorrow, and looking at wars, as we have since the invention of photography, has done nothing to stop them. The images of the dead children have returned. Not only as images but as facts of flesh. And nitrate negatives going up in flames are just that—a spontaneous act of self-combustion.