The Power of Images in History

The Soviet Union

The most common examples of photograph alteration and falsification come from communist Russia. Unwanted persons, so-called “enemies of the people” were not only killed, but also removed from photographs where their presence was unwanted. Photographs were altered with the intent of changing the past.

In the pictures below, you will see how Josef Stalin removed Leon Trotsky because he was a threat to his dictatorship. Compare the sets of photos below and see the changes. This is most interesting when we as historians must construct a past that has been falsified. This goes beyond the confines the USSR. Individuals are guilty of this, too. Remember, there was no photo shop in the 1930s.

The next set of images are nearly identical, however Trotsky is removed from both photographs.

The historical reason for this alteration is that Stalin eventually began to see Trotsky as a threat and labeled him an “enemy of the people”. After he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1929, Trotsky criticized Stalin’s leadership, arguing that the dictatorship Stalin exercised was based on his own interests, rather than those of the people. This contributed substantially to Trotsky’s removal from photographs and history.
[ all pictures above were taken from The Commissar Vanishes ]

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8 thoughts on “The Power of Images in History

  1. Interesting. Unfortunately for Trotsky, the erasing went beyond photography as he was assassinated with an ice axe to the noggin.

    I’m reminded of how some Pharaohs went to great lengths to remove all references to their political enemies by removing statues, monuments, and paintings.

    It would be cool to see how they edited those pictures. Removing a person with Photoshop and leaving a natural-looking result can be challenging, so to pull those off old-school in a dark room is impressive.

  2. Matt S,

    I am not sure how this was done. But wow, to think this could be done at that time. Trotsky was still too much in the light when he went to Mexico; if Stalin were after me, I would have been in the Amazon.

  3. Something I find interesting is the perspective that photographs can give us. The director of outreach at my Holocaust center does a REALLY eye-opening exercise with students and a famous photograph (which, of course, I can’t find right now) of a Nazi executing a woman and child. He shows two different versions of the picture – the cropped version, showing just the gunman and the woman and baby, and the original version which includes soldiers behind the gunman and a pile of bodies behind the mother and child. He asks the kids a bunch of questions about the picture, particularly about how the impression/message given by the first image differs from that of the second.

    Then he drops the proverbial bomb and asks how many people are in the picture.

    ALL the kids answer “three,” thinking the gunman, the woman, and the baby. “What about the person taking the picture?” he asks, and the kids invariably go silent. There’s a morality to viewing, and this exercise forces them to come to terms with the role of “observer/bystander” in the context of the larger questions we grapple with in these kinds of exercises.

  4. We are not that far removed from the Filmazoic Era. A mere twenty years ago I was taking a photography class, and part of the semester was learning to develop black and white pictures in the darkroom. As I recall, the negative would be suspended in a contraption above the light-sensitive paper, and one could adjust the focus and sizing of the image by changing the distance between the negative and the paper. The photo paper may not have been introduced until after the sizing and positioning was worked out by viewing the image on the surface that held the paper.

    I think what would be done is to mask off (cover) the area on the paper where Trotsky was standing, and expose the rest of the image. Then, everything else that was just exposed to the paper would be masked off and a different negative would be applied to the vacant Trotsky area. Easier said than done, but after several tries a seamless image could be achieved. What is amazing about the first picture above is how they were able to reconstruct the guy’s hat behind Trotsky. Mad darkroom skilz. Notice the edited version is darker, like it was overexposed. This may have been intentional (to hide transitions between the two exposures) or unintentional (a byproduct of overexposing it during the duplication process).

    Thanks for sharing that teaching story, Mrs. Chili. Sobering. As they say: a picture is worth a thousand words. But who is telling the story, does the story change with a perspective shift, and was the story edited in the darkroom or on a computer?

  5. OK Matt S, you are now talking over my head. I never knew photography could be so complex. I agree with you on the hat and Trotstky picture. Think about the hours and time it would take to do this. Also, I believe they had his name removed from documents too. Stalin was too paranoid. You would have to be to go through this effort.

  6. I must say, I think these “remember” museums are really out of line. Fine if someone wants to voluntarily look at dead people–I guess Mark Rich and Hitchens would call that pornographic. But to sneak such imagery in to elementary children at school, is disgusting. Guilt is now to be taught by museum helpers? There is a morbid fascination our society is taking with crime scene shows, and Remember this and remember that museums that somehow people think is going to prevent people from repeating it. Has it really worked? Maybe forcing Palestinians to go to holocaust museums will make them love more. It doesnt scare prejudice away. It only desensitizes. Look at the disproportionate treatment of Palestinians. Do these museums, possibly, work in one direction?

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