News | Politics of Memory / Antifascism - Eastern Europe - Central Europe - Southeastern Europe - May 8, 1945 The “Red Light” of Yugoslav Partisan Photography

The 75th anniversary of the liberation from fascism is a time to remember one of the largest anti-fascist movements in Europe.

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“Red Light” – A partisan wedding
“Red Light” – A partisan wedding

The Partisan movement in occupied Yugoslavia, under the leadership of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, grew into the largest popular uprising against fascism between 1941 and 1945. The People's liberation struggle of the Yugoslav partisans was led on three fronts – against the German and Italian occupation, the domestic traitors and collaborators Ustase and Chetniks, but also for a complete change in the socio-economic relations by promoting economic democratization, social revolution and complete emancipation of a society which was largely half-feudal and illiterate. The Belgrade office of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, in collaboration with its Zagreb association “Kolektor – Centre for Visual Arts” and the author of the book, Davor Konjikušić, published a book which provides a special and unique view of the movement through photographs, most of which have been published for the first time in the book.

After the publication of the Serbo-Croatian edition in 2018, and after the first public book presentations, especially in Zagreb and Belgrade, it became clear to all of us quite quickly what an eminently important contribution this book can make to the both journalistic and academic debate on the historical revisionism rampant in the former Yugoslavia. The diversity of the depicted scenes from the everyday life of the people's liberation struggle, their breadth and the immediacy captured by the photographers show a social movement that encompassed ever larger population groups and grew into a mass movement. In the most important Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji list (Morgenblatt), the book was even classified by the well-known publicist Jurica Pavičić as one of the most influential in 2019.

With the size and significance of the Yugoslavian partisan movement in mind, the Belgrade office is now striving to make the book accessible to a German-speaking public. The translation of the book into German has been completed, and if we should succeed in finding a publisher interested in a cooperation in the near future, nothing should stand in the way of an anniversary edition.

As an introduction to the contents of the book, we are publishing an essay by the author, accompanied by selected photographs, as part of the online dossier "Commemorating Liberation". All photographs are taken from the book, many of them published for the first time ever. They show different scenes from the life of the partisans – fights, children, escape scenes, famous personalities, cultural performances, portraits.

The partisan movement sensibly led and organised by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia shows us today, just as it did 75 years ago, how crucial solidarity is for antifascist movements dedicated to liberation from oppression and exploitation.

Krunoslav Stojaković, Head of Regional Office in Belgrade and Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

The book  Red Light – Yugoslav Partisans’ Photography and Social Movement 1941-1945  is an encompassing and pioneer analysis of partisan photography in the area of former Yugoslavia during WWII. It tries to provide the historic and production conditions in which partisan photography was born. Partisan cultural production was a core part of the Yugoslav revolutionary and anti-fascist action, with the goal of agitating, spreading literacy, political activism and achieving emancipation. The protagonists of partisan art were cultural workers, amateurs, but also authors who did not possess specific kinds of professional and occupational knowledge, which resulted in a democratisation of the field of culture itself.

Davor Konjikušić is a reporter, visual artist and researcher. He currently works as an art assistant at the Department of Photography at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, University of Zagreb. In his work, he deals with the questions of identity, migrations, and the role of photography in the creation of power relations and propaganda.

The book starts off with an analysis of the role of photography in the Paris Commune, the first photographically documented revolution where photography had a crucial role in identifying and execution of rebellious commune members, and a short overview of photography between WWI and WWII. In the chapter “Red Light of the Yugoslav Partisan's Photography,” we establish the historical context of partisan photography and follow some of the more interesting directions. A special chapter is dedicated to the analysis of photography and propaganda, which disproves the thesis that partisan photography was primarily an act of propaganda. The subsequent chapters analyse iconic photographs and the revolutionary function of photography.

Photography always creates an archive, which is why the publication of this book created an archive of partisan photographs, published and unpublished, discovered and long known, all published in the second part of the book, entitled “Photograph Album.” This is where the topics of the representation of the partisan life, life in the freed territory, religious and political liberties, battle and war, representation of women in the partisan movement, exhibitions and artistic production, victory, defeat, and many others are analysed. We are especially proud that we created, for the first time in one place, a list of all the previously known and newly-discovered photographers, many of whom did not survive the war, just like their photographic archives.

The basic role of partisan photography was to win, alongside the armed conflict, at the representational level, despite the material-technical limits of the partisan photographers who could not compete with the propaganda machine of the far superior domestic, and even more so the fascist and Nazi enemy, who understood photography as a literal weapon in well-organised propaganda units (Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht). Our study does not view partisan photography exclusively through the prism of agitation and propaganda – we question the political relevancy and political nature of photography as a media. In a book which especially focuses on the analysis of the historic and productional evolution of partisan photography, it is important to deal with the wider understanding of the media, its revolutionary potential, discussed by Walter Benjamin in his well-known essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, where he stated that the media of photography, apart from irreversibly destroying the aura of an artwork, has the potential “to form revolutionary demands with the art public?” Was it not precisely in partisan photography where the difference between the author and public disappeared, thus achieving the ideal of the art avant-garde? Was it not in the partisan movement itself that the standing relationship of the same public towards art changed? The book Red Light proves that it was, that the medium of photography has special importance in the transformation of society in the partisan movement.

Alongside educated photographers who were part of the partisan movement, other members of the movement were trained in using cameras, and the photographs were material for the creation of bulletin boards, newspapers, photo albums, the production of falsified documents, the creation of a partisan archive, and finally for exhibitions held in cities, but also in the forests of the liberated territory. In partisan photography there is only the “inner view” and the difference between the subject and the object is erased. In the beginning, partisan photography was outside of a centralised propaganda system, left to the photographers themselves with no supervision of their work until 1943. That is the year of the capitulation of Italy, which left enough space for the development of the partisan movement and photography, and there is also a weakening of the British and American censure over the partisan movement, which over time became the only relevant anti-fascist movement in the territory of Yugoslavia, as far as the West was concerned. During 1944 there is a systematisation of the production of photographs through photo-services and agitation-propaganda offices (AGITPROP), within which the entire cultural activity was held, which leads us to the focus of this research – the analysis of artistic subjectivity and the freedom of action.

The book takes into account the fact that partisan photography is characterised by a social and propaganda role, very poor production conditions, but it tries to lift the topic to a general level and look at its artistic and documentary value in that way. As far as propaganda is concerned, photography is primarily a semantic carrier of the message of the building of a new world and it also serves to agitate the wider masses in the building of that world. From the very beginning, it is balancing between a free author approach of partisan photographers and later attempts to become a part of a comprehensive informative-propaganda system. Throughout WWII the partisan photographer is under threat of his negatives being destroyed, he is unable to create an archive, but above that there is also the possibility of complete physical elimination of the photographer. This is in part the reason for the vast freedom of the partisan photographer and the plurality of opinions. A testament to the fact that this is a fascinating undertaking is the fact that the Yugoslav news agency TANJUG was established on 5 November 1943 – four years before the first international photography agency, Magnum. Many Partisan photographers learned their trade during the war, at first as reportage photographers, only four years after the establishment of the American magazine Life, in 1936, which set the foundations for the contemporary photo-journalism as we know it today.

It is important to mention that a large number of photographs in this book do not have a credited author, but that should not be viewed only as a shortcoming. During the fight against fascism, most photographers followed a common idea and motivation, a collective work with a clear goal was being made, a collective body was undertaking collective action. The creation of such a collective is based on art conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s when one side represented elitist individualism and the other collective action. The partisan archive was created in the period of the war, which can also be seen in the creation of scientific and cultural institutions during the war.

The research of the material for this book was done at a time when partisan photography, alongside the partisan and Yugoslav heritage, has become unwanted in the countries built on the ruins of the socialist Yugoslavia. Many archives are closed off from research, and even the publication of a book like this is hailed as an act of civic courage. A large part of the archive, especially the negatives and photographs, has not been adequately preserved and was left to slowly disappear. That is precisely why the coding of these photographs today represents a confrontation with revisionist narratives, a semiotic fight for the role of the freedom fighter who is being portrayed as a terrorist. Today there truly is a fight over visual signifiers and the representation of the world, especially the past. We want to believe that it is precisely in these fights that the book will find its significant place, because ideology is represented through, amongst others, photography. Bodies in photographs from the past, as was noticed by Didier Eribon, offer the viewer a direct view as a social – class – body, while photography itself always rewrites us in the part of the world we come from and makes us part of the collective history and geography. That is why the post-Yugoslavia destruction of archives, the systematic neglect and constant fabrication of fake facts, encounters problematic material in this book. In such a situation, any research on Yugoslav partisan photography, of which this book is only the first small step, becomes an especially problematic witness of the time, standing in the way of newly-established narratives and falsehoods, which is largely the result of the Council of Europe resolution 1481 from 2006, which “strongly condemns crimes of totalitarian communist regimes.”

This book shows that photography had a significant and central place in historic political fights and revolutions, including the partisan movement. We need to remind ourselves to throw away the assumption of its innocence because it is precisely due to photography that the current political fights are now more than ever on the representational level. This book is a story of a movement which managed to create a system that successfully represented its battles and contradictions in impossible conditions. To a certain degree, the book also confronts the colonist view of the Balkans, as a place of intolerance and inner conflict. Photography tells the story of a victorious fight against a much stronger enemy, achieving the ideal of brotherhood and unity and lasting peace. The central place of photography in contemporary social and political fights invites the question of its potential to change public opinion, open spaces of public discussion and promote worldwide solidarity. Placed on the border between art, propaganda and document, it served everyone - it cannot be seen as having only one function; its relevance as a mass and political media has only increased alongside the development of technology.