Photography in Socialist Societies: Picturing Power

Photography in Socialist Societies: Picturing Power

Martina Winkler, University Bremen; in collaboration with Forschungsstelle Osteuropa, Bremen
Vom - Bis
10.12.2015 - 12.12.2015
Martina Winkler

In the course of the so-called “visual turn”, the history of photography has experienced a considerable upturn: photography as a medium of expression has long proven crucial for visual strategies and hence critical for our understanding of communication in modern societies. So far, however, research on photography from a historical perspective displays an exceedingly asymmetrical character: on the one hand, we enjoy critical, highly complex and sophisticated debates on photography in Western societies, particular on North American traditions. Socialist societies, on the other hand, have not been taken much into consideration – the general way of presenting photography in socialism has been oriented along the oversimplifying concepts of “propaganda” or state-commissioned photography. In addition, research on socialist photography focuses strongly on the GDR as well as the Soviet Union, while other countries have for the most part remained neglected by scholarship.

Historians of the University Bremen, working in close collaboration with scholars and archivists of the Forschungsstelle Osteuropa (Bremen), want to tackle this research field by establishing a refined way of working with photographs from the second half of the 20th century: in a way that is adequate both to the complex questions and methodologies of history of photography and the standards of research on socialist societies. In order to embark on this journey, we invite interested scholars to participate in a first conference on the topic: “Picturing Power”.

Generally speaking, photography and power are closely intertwined: photography can display, create, perpetuate or protest power relations. For Western societies, these dimensions have been researched both widely and in depth related to the role of photography in various discourses such as colonialism, science and medicine, ethnography, or pedagogy. When it comes to socialist societies, however, the relations of photography and power are usually seen as limited to the dualism of regime and dissent. We want to develop a more diverse scope of questions to be asked in order to learn more about the mechanisms and dynamics of photography and power in socialist societies: How did photographers caption, display or deny power relations in their images? What kinds of motifs, symbols and emotional triggers did they employ? Is photography in socialist societies to be considered a homogeneous or rather a multifaceted discourse? How do we deal with different fields such as vernacular photography, photojournalism, photography as art, and photography as a tool in science? How did the process of selection, distribution, and publication work? Can we identify specific socialist aesthetics, and what meaning needs to be ascribed to national distinctions? What kinds of impact – if any – from Western photography can be detected here?

We are looking forward to receiving a short summary of your ideas for a paper. Please send a short abstract by March 15th, 2015.

The conference is planned for 10.-12. December 2015 in Bremen. The conference will also include the chance to visit the archive of the Forschungsstelle Osteuropa. Travel expenses and accommodation can be covered.

Scholars interested in working with our archival documents are invited to apply for further financial means in order to facilitate a longer stay in Bremen. Please get in touch with us if you are interested. For further information about our archive, please consult our website: and get in touch with our staff: Karina Garsztecka (for Czech, Slovak and Polish materials) or Maria Klassen (for Soviet materials).

Contact: Martina Winkler,



Martina Winkler
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