As historians, we are taught to utilize primary sources. In fact, our work is only possible through accounts, whether written or visual, of past events. However, our whole field of work becomes unhinged if the very primary sources we study are doctored. I don’t just mean relying on a diary that has a biased perspective, but basing historical work on a source that is fabricated or changed to create a different meaning. This becomes particularly disheartening when photos, the seemingly most truthful depiction of history, is the product of political objective.
Some photographs have now been identified and discredited for their edits. Yevgeny Khaldei’s “Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag” taken in May 1945, seems to capture the triumphant moment Soviet forces freed Eastern Europe from the grips of Nazi control in the capital city of Berlin. Much like Joe Rosenthal’s photo of soldiers raising an American flag over Iwo Jima, Khaldei’s photo depicted the moment good seemingly won over evil. Perhaps this is due to some crucial edits and staging of the photo. Though Khaldei took great care to make a Soviet flag big enough to recreate the patriotism of Rosenthal’s photo, he failed to realize that one of the soldiers in the picture was wearing a watch on each wrist – physical proof of the rampant looting Soviet troops committed in military occupations. Soviet censors order him to remove one of the watches before it was to be printed in major newspapers. Only with the confession of Khaldei, vast knowledge of the propaganda strategies of the Soviet regime, and original prints can historians definitively mark this photo as evidence of the corporation in the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime.
However, is this photo really just the product of totalitarianism? Quick to prove political intentions, we can forget the photographer himself. Nazi forces killed most of Khaldei’s family and he witnessed the atrocities German forces committed in Eastern Europe throughout his own life. So while Khaldei had government orders to doctor the photo, he had his own reason to make the Soviets look like heroes over the evil of Germany. In fact, he would deflect questions about the photo with answers like “it is a good photograph and historically significant. Next question please.” Both groups wished to elevate the Soviet image, but different reasons.
So, does it matter that the historical record gets the right intention? Filmmaker Errol Morris thinks so. In his New York Times article covering his efforts to discover which photo of “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” came first by Roger Fenton, he criticizes the psychological analysis experts revert to in order to prove that Fenton initially moved cannonballs onto the road to create more dramatic image. Many cited that it was “obvious” Fenton moved the cannonballs back on the road for a better shot. Even though Morris was wrong and the cannonballs on the road was in fact the second picture, the intention was not as obvious as others believed.
Therefore, sharing data and visualizations of the past cannot fall victim to the human tendency to go with the obvious explanation. What seems obvious to us now would not seem obvious to actors of the past – and vice versa. We as historians must provide the tools and insight in order to overcome our own biases through lived experience. Programs like Georeferencer v4 let people compare modern understandings of the world around us versus the understandings of those before us. Looking at a current map over top a historical map from the 16th century could enhance our interpretation of Early Modern navigation and worldview. Tools like this will allow us to view visualizations of the past in their own time, rather than creating a historical narrative based on what we perceive to be obvious.
Viewing visual primary sources in their own time does not mean we have to adopt the prejudice or ignorance of a previous society. Rather, it means in order to gauge the most truthful depiction of the past, how society was perceived in its own time, we must set aside what we assume is obvious to what those before us were just experiencing.