The Illegal Camera

by Doug Lawing

Photography in the Netherlands during the German Occupation 1940-45
Holocaust Museum Houston June 19-September 1, 1997

In June 1945, shortly after the liberation of the Netherlands from German occupation, a group of Amsterdam photographers exhibited work chronicling life in Amsterdam under German control. Entitled The Hidden Camera, the exhibition's duration was only ten days. It now, however, serves as the source for a much more exhaustive exhibition, The Illegal Camera, curated by Veronika Hekking and Flip Bool. Organized by the Netherlands Photo Archives, Rotterdam, the exhibition traveled to the Holocaust Museum Houston last summer after stops at The Jewish Museum, New York, and The Field Museum, Chicago.

Although not entirely illegal in the Netherlands under the Germans, photography was limited to only approved subjects and was restricted by a scarcity of materials and equipment. Despite the prohibitions and hardships, Dutch citizens in an obviously intentional, but unconcerted, effort documented events that the Germans considered to be undesirable - confiscation of goods, forced labor, arrests of Jews - as well as the resistance that was taking place among the Dutch. Consisting of over 50 images taken by 25 professional and amateur photographers, The Illegal Camera is a photographic record of life throughout the Netherlands from the point of view of the oppressed.

The photographs in the exhibition were effectively organized into sections according to subject matter and with little redundancy despite a large number of images. Succinct explanatory text at the starting point of each section placed the work in context. Warfare and Occupation included images of a German officer ominously passing by an Amsterdam flower stand (Charles Breijer), German soldiers invading a small town (Neeltje Roelse) and the construction of the Atlantic Wall near the Hague (Menno Huizinga). The confiscation of local goods by the Germans as well as the forced emigration of young Dutch workers to Germany were documented in Confiscation and Compulsory Labor. In one photograph, Frits Lamberts, standing outside a police station window, captured his brother inside staring out into the darkness after having been arrested.

In the numerous images under Persecution of the Jews, the arrests of Jews for eventual deportation to concentration camps and the subsequent waiting period in round-up centers were depicted. Under Resistance, a group worked in a cramped attic space to produce illegal identification cards (Violette Cornelius). Four photographs taken from an upper story window evidenced weapons secretly being brought in and out of an address connected to the underground resistance (Fritz Kahlenberg). The cold winter of 1944-1945, which resulted in widespread starvation, was documented in The Hunger Winter 1944-1945. The photo-graphs representing these months included men taking wood illegally from empty dwellings (Menno Huizinga) and children carrying pots to a soup kitchen (Emmy Andriesse). Finally, under Mad Tuesday and Liberation, the mass confusion caused by an inaccurate report of the advance of the Allies and the eventual liberation of the Netherlands were depicted.

Despite the fact that the photographs included in the exhibition were taken by a number of photographers with varying skills, an aesthetic of the clandestine unites the work stylistically. To take a photograph of a subject deemed forbidden by the Germans was quite dangerous and, therefore, many of the photographs were shot quickly with little chance to compose. Some were taken from or in a place of hiding - from window ledges, from underneath overcoats or inside cramped rooms. Some of the resulting photographs were strangely cropped while others had the appearance of surveillance photographs. Though unlikely the product of aesthetic choice, the stylistic continuity of the images emphasized their significance as documentation of a hidden world. Additionally, these formal similarities identified the photographers not as detached outsiders but as participants in the realm of many of their subjects. As a result, the photographs suggested an additional component of the hidden world explicitly depicted.

Given the subject matter of The Illegal Camera, surprisingly few images shock or provoke. Out of context, many of the images might indicate the facade of a normal existence - people gathering, smiling, working. It is only when they are placed in the context of the German occupation (and in the context of the exhibition) that they fully carry meaning. In this respect, The Illegal Camera emphasizes the inherent weakness of an isolated photograph as pure document. Fortunately, the curators of this exhibition have realized the importance of gathering these images together and of presenting them in a way that effectively conveys their significance.

Doug Lawing is the owner of Lawing Gallery in Houston, Texas.