White Lens, Black Lives: how a Nazi filmmaker made a career of photographing Nuba peoples in Sudan
By Eye Candy
June 21, 2017
By Shaun La
What constraints Photography’s societal freedom & what has guided its power would be how it has grown into a tool for civilizations, as well as communities of people & governments to design the visual feelings, attitudes & mentalities attributed to the sway of perception.
Photography, when placed on the clock of historical significance does not fit under an ancient medium—it is a very young medium with under 200 years surrounding its age.
Nazi Germany in the 1930’s met the powers of Photography when it (Photography) was around 100 years old. What Adolf Hitler crafted under his regime with still-photography & the motion-pictures would be a testament of every government after Nazi Germany, comprehending the supreme competence of what a photographer or filmmaker could do with a camera for their governmental cause, war or peace. In Nazi Germany’s case, it was to water propaganda into news, hydrate the followers of Nazi beliefs into a massive population, while bulldozing any Race or religion of people that did not meet their standards as a co-equal into any sort of evil outcome that they deemed as necessary cleansing.
Leni Riefenstahl (August 22nd, 1902- September 8th, 2003) benefited from Nazi Germany in various ways. Her career along with loyalty to the camera dates back to her acting in front of the lens, but the high-powered connection to her career goes back to personally knowing Hitler when he was running Nazi Germany.
Depending on which version of their familiarity with one another that you wish to subscribe to, her being approved to direct pivotal motion-pictures for Nazi Germany (such as Olympia in 1938) to her own admission that she had no clarity on what Hitler & Nazi Germany were doing to the Jewish population can fall in the median of: she had to know about their methods of running Germany or she fully decided to ignore the atrocities that the government she was a citizen of, were doing to anyone not fitting the bill of the “Master Race.”
To benefit financially, politically, professionally & creatively from a government defines a connection, either by being in cohorts or encouraging & complimenting the progress which leads a nation—a nation that rewarded her visual participation by championing her filmmaking.
After Nazi Germany was crushed & crumbled; after Hitler found a bunker to hide in, while Nazi Germany were losing World War II, her creative freedom changed immensely. In 1945, on the 30th of April, Hitler & his wife, Eva Braun, committed suicide. What were to happen to those who were loyal Nazi members, followers & sympathizers of the Nazi regime were to be scattered outcome: some were tried & convicted, executed, others ran from criminal prosecution, hid in countries throughout this world, some were captured, served prison time, while others died without being imprisoned or having to answer for their war crimes against humanity.
Let me purposely remind the reader, Leni’s involvement with the Nazi’s government remains murky in terms of a precise position she held within their political power structure. Could she have been an artist pacifying Hitler for favors & budgets & not one to concern herself with how they ran their brutal leadership that was consistent with pushing an agenda about a “Master Race?” Or, could it have been that she was a great encourager of the Nazi government’s methods of controlling Germany & the “Master Race’s” insular logic of making Germany the soil of the New Order—-which would equate to more opportunities & successes for her visions as a filmmaker?
However way that a historical perspective may snuggle up with a modern opinion, it did not hurt Leni’s career to know Hitler, until, it hurt her career when she wanted to explain as if she knew only of Hitler as a man or well-known international figure, but not about the levels of cruelty that he would put populations of people through for the sake of his “Master Race” intentions.
Leni was engulfed in the tidal wave of war crime prosecutions that met some of those who were completely dedicated to the Nazi’s regime.
Time goes on & Leni took advantage of such a natural progression that goes on with life. After the fall of Nazi Germany, she went through the criminal justice process of being sorted out. Investigations were pitted against figuring out what was her exact position in the Nazi’s political world, which spun unrelenting control over Germany—she went through numerous trials & the conclusion pointed to her being an advocate to the Nazis & their political leadership, but not a war criminal.
Some thought that she escaped the fates of cruelty & brutality that she at least, mildly knew of, through her affiliation with Adolf Hitler: a leader, who with crystal clear clarity ordered the executions or inhumane prison sentences & living conditions to those who he considered not worthy enough to breathe in his German air.
Her career as a filmmaker came to a complete halt. Either from the lack of no motion-picture studio wanting to do business with someone who had secure & close ties to Hitler or components of society not wanting to support her filmmaking visions by being outspoken towards her filmmaking productions. One thing was for certain, Leni was not going to have the free flowing freedom of making films that she once had with Hitler, nor would she ever have the population of Nazi Germany being the automatic audience to her filmmaking.
She relented from making films after her projects, Post-Nazi Germany, met the pay dirt of being incomplete.
When Modernism tries to forget that Race matters:
Leni did not let go of her visual know-how. Still-photography would become a visual category that she could manage with the hope of showing the world her photographic Eye.
What is paradoxical when you look at Leni’s photography would be that she ended up in Africa, photographing the Nuba peoples, which would have hastily met the nonstop rejection of her first high-powered connection in being creative, Adolf Hitler. Even though these photographs came some 20 or 25 years after Hitler’s suicide. The mere boldness in someone who personally knew the nucleus of white power, one Race is the “Master Race,” Aryan heritage is the only intelligent heritage can seem extremely off the radar for a so-called “Master Race” rationalization.
When the circumstances of her photographing Black Africans, natives of a region in a part of Africa that Hitler would not ever be caught walking through, alive, dead or spiritually. To imagine the opinions that Hitler or her other Nazi friends that she once spent time with & their scrutiny (had Hitler been alive during her photography career) about her lens being pointed to the Nuba peoples’ would be a bucket full of scrutiny filled up with ignorant, hateful bashing of those in her photographs—more so than the disowning of her being one of them, a follower, citizen, artist & friend of Nazi Germany.
Yet, when you observe the overall building block of Photography as an instrument for the Eye to deem what is important, exotic, cultured, wealthy, poverty-stricken, successful, stereotypical or what produces war & peace—white men or women photographers (American or European) tend to own a poetic license or a journalistic pass, commercial success, as well as an artistic merit on photographing any & everything that they can commend as “their” inspired, discovered enlightenment.
Leni was welcomed by the Nuba peoples & their region of Sudan. The revolving planet that encloses so many instances in the history of civilizations, where the Black race has been friendly to sailors, explorers, conquerors, slave-masters, leaders, countries, teachers, artists & exploiters are way too many to actually count out.
As Leni explored the soil of Sudan & her lens gravitated into the cultures & customs of the Nuba peoples, an invasion of conditioned behavior flaunted into the momentum of her work finding a semi-comeback to a 1970’s world that had Vietnam on their minds, not World War II. Had it not been for the writings of Susan Sontag (Fascinating Fascism published by The New York Book Review in 1975), who knows where the “newly” discovered importance of Leni’s photography would have modernly soared up & away into? (She had published two photographic books about the Nuba peoples, The Last of the Nuba, 1973 & The People of Kau, 1976.)
The possibility of success from a modern world during the 1970’s could have retrospectively approved & redefined her photographic work, as well as her past, along with those Nazi Germany funded films: which were showered with propaganda driven, overt, racist “Master Race” visual messages from the 1930’s, & 1940’s.
White Commercialism has its ingredients & this includes the Arts:
Susan, a well-respected author & essayist (well-known in the Photography World for her powerful book work, On Photography, published in 1977) was a Jewish woman who put up a barrier to keep the forgetfulness that ascends in a world where talent can become a currency that can be paid to those who will culturally & commercially benefit from a white artist being rediscovered.
Objectively, Leni’s filmmaking for Nazi Germany shows an innovative route that filmmakers could technically & stylistically learn from. Her Photography of the Nuba peoples & the regions of Africa that she photographed, from a visual platform, are strongly photographed. The colors, the natural light with the yellow sun showing its presence, as well as the composition are fluid in the sense that she adjoins to Moments graduating through an onlooker’s (Leni) intriguing placement of being involved with seeing a culture of people being themselves in their natural landscape.
However, subjectively, it should not be forgotten, where her standpoints on how the Aryan race was the superior Race had a balanced footing on her way of thinking, because she was once, after all, a close friend to Adolf Hitler—a friendship that did not dissolve out of friends falling out, but more like Hitler committing suicide when he came to the terms that he was not going to lead Nazi Germany anymore.
Leni fed off of the ignorance from Nazi Germany; furthermore, she achieved success with her early creative work, funded by a leader (Adolf Hitler) who had no limits in playing God to a nation of people who worshiped him. I find the egotistical horsepower in one creative (Leni) aligning with someone acting as if they are a creator (Hitler) of a “Master Race” to be a merging clash that crashes into a reality that they manipulated together.
Seeing more than her work:
As a photographer, I am one who believes that the Eye has a core value in the beliefs of the photographer. This does not indicate that a photographer from another Race or religion cannot accurately photograph another Race or religion opposite of their own—this does indicate that when a photographer deeply places their subjectivity into the causes or political guidelines of a political party, the Eye of their Heart will see a passion neglecting the neutrality that arrives with a seeing is believing kind of philosophy. (A photographer will let go of their objectivity when they become more passionate about a political movement or political party, ignoring the Moment that does not need a biased lens.) The ethics in how they can see with their photography becomes a message of propaganda that is very blurry.
If we are to find any connectivity in Races & any sort of commonality in equality in religious freedoms, we as a society must hold accountable, the Artists who come through our channels of living, as a function of expressions linked not only to their natural gifts but, also, their pre-mediated prejudices.
Of course, there is the logic of forgiveness that can float into the discussion about Leni’s work. Does the modern world have to find a tolerance in its way of living & general thinking to an artist whose past artistic career can seem politically & criminally controversial? As in, Leni befriended & benefited from the leader of an oppressive regime that orchestrated the Holocaust. She rebounded after World War II, while finding a way to still be an artist, this time photographing a culture of people who would not have survived had their land been in Nazi Germany, when she was at the pinnacle of her filmmaking career.
Does her second chance at an artistic career as a photographer explains redemption & forgiveness or does it display her seeing a new opportunity & instead of Hitler: the youthful medium titled Photography, which does not depend on a producer’s budget & an audience purchasing tickets to see a motion-picture production, as another insight into her opportunistic pattern? Does the Nuba Peoples end up being exploited through the rebuilding of an artist’s career who had some beneficial connections with Nazi Germany—-would the concentration that was required in order for her to photograph these still-photographs of the Nuba Peoples, symbolically show the powers within that it takes to run or accept the news of knowing that concentration camps existed while she directed films for the regime behind the construction of these cruel concentration camps throughout Europe? Concentration camps where Jews were imprisoned inside of, while away from the sights of these concentration camps & in a bustling & productive areas of Germany a “Master Race” leader energetically, enunciated speeches to his massive, approving Nazi Germany population.
The center of all of this, would not be about Leni being a good or great filmmaker or photographer; however, what it should be about, would be, are we as a society willing to forget about the past, because an artist has good or great work in a retrospective sense; meanwhile, the sufferings from the past are muted, because modern exploitation has a leadership & influence from artists who are white that tend to guide a future in how non-whites are spoken up for in a civilized society. Nazi Germany had a small grip on Africa & their “Master Race” ideology did not consider Blacks of any country or continent as a co-equal. When the evaluation of Africa’s natural resources comes up under the microscope, it would make wise conquering sense (for Nazi Germany) to completely move in on Africa, had World War II did not happen.
A notable lesson in Leni’s career behind the lens should always be about how the work can end up selecting the Artist & with this being stated, she made her political bed & was comfortable sleeping inside of it; therefore, her legacy (more so than her work) might not deserve a great awakening if the nightmares from the Nazi Germany are ignored, because our modern society does not want to measure the two halves of her visual legacy.
More of Leni’s work with the Nuba peoples can be viewed, here.
About the Writer:
Shaun La is a photographer & writer. Starting off with the medium of photography at the age of 18 (20 years ago) with a Minolta Hi-Matic & 135 film, the desire to see the moment became a way to envision the possibilities in wanting to be a timer awaiting to see if he could photograph more moments. His photography extends into fashion, street, photojournalism, landscape, still-life & candid realities — still utilizing film cameras only, 135 & medium-format film. As a writer, he has penned numerous essays on various topics, which has been published by the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Sun, Afro-Punk, Camera Obscura & other media outlets. Currently he is working on his book, “The Perpetual Intellectual View Called Photography: Essays,” & putting together the building blocks for an upcoming exhibition on his Photography.
Some of my writings can be viewed here
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