The Execution of Masha Bruskina

In October 1941, at Minsk, Belorussia (then occupied by the Nazis), a 17-year-old Soviet Jewish partisan Masha Bruskina was arrested. Her crime? Along with two others, she was accused of killing a German soldier. Before being hanged, she was paraded through the streets with a plaque around her neck which read (in both German and Russian): “We are partisans and have shot at German troops”.

On October 26, 1941, she and her two comrades were hanged by the Nazis. In order to frighten the people into submission, the commander of the 707th Infantry Division, decided to hold a public hanging adjacent to a yeast factory. Every step of this grueling experience by documented by an unknown Lithuanian collaborating with the Nazis in seven infamous pictures.

After the war, the photos were made public — Masha’s two companions were immediately identified, but “the unknown girl” in the photo was not identified until 1968. Soviet authorities, however, refused to recognize her or to award her a posthumous medal. This snub was caused by the prevailing sense of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. In addition, her execution was two months before that of the renowned Soviet resistance fighter Zoya Kosmodemianskya — who was the symbol of Russian women’s resistance to the Nazi occupation.

See the works of Lev Arkadiev and Ada Dikhtiar, who popularized Masha’s cause.

The Gummers eat Beef

At the height of the scare for the Mad Cow disease (BSE) in the Great Britain in 1990, the-then Tory agriculture minister John Gummer famously attempted to allay fears about BSE by publicly feeding a burger to his four-year-old daughter, Cordelia. On May 6th, 1990, the press photographed Mr Gummer and his little girl at a boat show in Suffolk eating hamburgers. Although photographs of the event were staged and the burgers–presumably eaten by the duo–were in fact bitten into by a civil servant, Gummer subsequently become the most reviled politician to come out of the entire fiasco.

The first animal to fall ill with the BSE was in 1984 but it was only in November 1986 that the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that it was a new strain. In July 1989, the Europeans banned the British beef, but Gummer delayed a ban on beef domestically. These altercations between the Europeans and the Brits reached its height in 1996 when the European Commission announced the worldwide export ban on all British beef and the UK countered it with a policy of non co-operation with EU partners until ban is lifted.

Gummer remained defiant–the inquiry into the BSE crisis later asked him whether he had changed his eating habits during or after the crisis. Gummer replied that if anything he ate more beef because it was cheaper that it used to be.


David Paradine Frost was somewhat of a precursor to Jon Stewart. A TV phenom in Britain during the 1960s, Frost had an entertaining weekly show of satire towards the Establishment called That Was the Week That Was. In 1975, Frost, then a successful businessman whose television stardom itself had faded, embarked on a journalistic adventure of a lifetime, to interview Richard Nixon.

Disgraced and debt-ridden, Nixon did not want any of the well-known U.S. journalists as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley to interview him. Frost made Nixon an offer ($500,000 for four shows), and the president agreed. “Nixon can, of course, refuse to answer questions,” Frost mused, “But then I am able to film his refusing to answer.” The tapings were done north of San Clemente, California from 23rd March to 20th April 1977 in the home of a Nixon friend and ran over 12 days, and 28 hours of tapes.

For both parties, the interviews were a success. It covered a full range of topics from Nixon’s presidency, and although after the interviews, 72% of those who watched still believed Nixon was guilty of Watergate, the ex-president redeemed himself as a great statesman who accomplished many diplomatic achievements. As for Frost, it gave him international exposure, and hefty profits.

After the Nixon interview, Frost went on to interview seven more American presidents and six British prime ministers. He was knighted in December 1992, and currently hosts the Al Jazeera English program, Frost Over the World. In 2006, a play about the interviews – titled Frost/ Nixon – premiered; it was written by Peter Morgan.

Obama at the Great Wall

The Great Wall was a photo-opportunity for every visiting leader; the symbol of the way China was–xenophobic, closed and mysterious–the wall kept ‘foreign devils’ and their ‘disruptive’ influences at bay for centuries.

Obama’s press corps had spinned the president’s latest visit as a lone pilgrimage. That is why it was amazing to see this negative opinion from a Chinese writer in the New York Times: “A lone man walking up the steep slope of the Great Wall. The picture is in stark contrast to those of other U.S. presidents who had their photographs taken at the Great Wall surrounded by flag-waving children or admiring citizens. … Mr. Obama could have waited until the next visit, when he could bring the first lady and the children. Instead, he went ahead by himself to pay tribute to China’s ancient culture. In return, the Chinese offered nothing, no popular receptions, not even the companionship of a senior Chinese leader.”

The president’s visit was far from a lonely pilgrimage–Chinese police officers guard the sentry tower and CIA agents are scattered throughout the crowd. His entourage and press corps were kept deliberately apart throughout the visit by some 300 highly trained Secret Service bodyguards who escorted Mr Obama throughout the week-long visit to Asia. One senior Pentagon officer who carried a black leather briefcase however stayed within 100ft of the President at all times par the protocol. (Inside the briefcase, if you are wondering is the Football, a metallic Zero Halliburton briefcase that contains the codes needed to launch a nuclear attack).

The first major visit by a Western leader to the Great Wall came in 1972 when Richard Nixon visited it and said: “This is a Great Wall, and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall, and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.” He was to be soon followed by Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Queen of England, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes and Clinton in a series of high-profile visits.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” worded Lincoln, ironically enough at the dedication ceremony for the Fallen at the Gettysburg. The line and the entire Gettysburg Address, indeed passed unnoticed on that November day 1863.

The main speaker of the day was not Lincoln but the orator Edward Everett, who droned on for two hours in a 1,500-sentence speech full of what Bill Bryson called, “literary allusions, Ciceronian pomp and obscure historical references that bore only the scantest significance to the occasion”.  Abraham Lincoln was the second speaker and his speech contained only 268 words, two thirds of them of only one syllable, in ten short sentences. He barely took his eyes of his written speech–which didn’t mentioned Gettysburg or slavery or the Union. His talk of a little over 2 minutes was too short for the official photographer to take the president delivering the iconic speech.

Abraham Lincoln photos are rare — from the day of the Gettysburg Address, only one verified photo exist the one above. One is currently being verified here.

The photos were even rarer than the manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address. Of five known copies, the Library of Congress has two (those of Lincoln’s private secretaries), and other three copies of the Address were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes. (Everett, to whom Lincoln confided that he thought the speech was a failure, got a copy).

Angus McBean’s Beauties

In the 30s and 40s, Angus McBean was arguably the best portrait photographer of his era. His photographs revealed a reverence and admiration for the subject and were the homages to Shakespearean and later the Hollywood ideals of glamour and beauty.

His portraits are elaborately staged, requiring full sets, to put Peggy Ahscroft, as Portia, into a surreal landscape, Vivien Leigh, in cod-Classical goddess garb, through cotton-wool clouds, Flora Robson bursting through the dry earth, or above, Diana Churchill’s head, seemingly misplaced by the leg of a kitchen chair. He asked Vivien Leigh to have a tooth removed to reduce a tiny muscle that made her top lip minutely asymmetrical. She complied.

Deemed ‘surreal’ by the popular press, he was denounced by the British Journal of Photography as a ‘charlatan’. McBean retorted with the portrait of Dorothy Dickson, whose head appeared among the lily pads by an overgrown bank. In February 1940, Picture Post covered his shoot with Diana Churchill, titled “How to Photograph a Beauty.” The picture of her disembodied head caused so much dismay that many called for psychiatric investigation of his photographer. That McBean was a homosexual was discovered and he was sentenced to prison for four years for buggery.

It being the wartime, the Nazi Germany used this as a propaganda against the British ‘freedom of press’, creating deliberate confusion to imply that he was imprisoned for lampooning the Prime Minister’s daughter (the actress bore no relations to Winston Churchill, although the latter’s daughter was also named Diana).

A Colonial Harem

Last week, I wrote about the controversial picture of Cherid Barkaoun. Someone emailed me with another episode in the Algerian history that was intertwined with photography and here it is:

In 1987, Malek Alloula, an Algerian poet who lives in France published a book called, The Colonial Harem. The book was a collection of postcards that displayed an Africa that never was–an Africa of European imagination, an Africa of exotic dancers and nubile odalisques.

Alloula arranged the postcards in an increasing order of explicitness, ending his book with an ”anthology of breasts”: women, naked to the waist, accompanied by captions like ”Want to party, honey?” or ”Oh! Is it ever hot!” or ”The Cracked Jug.” Many postcards supposedly displaying Algeria of that time composed of women in elaborately draped trousers, embroidered vests, exorbitant beads and jewelled turbans. They posed on divans and carpets with cigarettes in their hands, shackles on their feet.

For 30 years at the beginning of this century, these cards were brought onto the European market by photographers like the Swiss Jean Geyser. They transmitted back a message of superiority, and of exotic details of the African interior to Europe. They served as surrogates for the need for political and military conquest and for further investments in the French colonial ventures in Africa. Alloula does not focus on the biographies of the models (most of them were nameless anyway) or their reasons for posing, but instead on the oppression, violence and degradation the former colonial masters brought about in Africa.

Sewell Avery thrown out

For a lengthy period, the $300 million mail-order house, Montgomery Ward & Company was beset by disputes between labor and management. The economy of the entire Midwest was affected by these disputes and this being the wartime, a presidential decree was issued for the government take over of Montgomery Ward.

On April 26th 1944, Sewell L. Avery, the company’s chairman, was notified. Avery was a prominent figure in right-wing, anti-New Deal efforts and was a scion of a powerful lumber family, and thus he refused to move out and went to work the next day as usual. The U.S. Army was prepared to enforced the Department of Commence’s seizure of the plant–they lifted Avery bodily and carried him down on the elevator.

Many photographers–William Pauer of Chicago Times, Ed Geisse of Chicago Tribune–were there to capture the moment, but the photo of the day was made by Harry Hall for AP. For more than anything, Hall had to thank the AP for his photo becoming the photo du jour: the AP was the first to transmit the paper, and it was a major news ‘beat’. It caused a sensation in all the newspapers it appeared.

Hall remembered the day when Avery made a courageous and defiant stand: “I had my Speed Graphic ready and was just waiting around, when all of a sudden the front door opened and two soldiers came out carrying Sewell Avery. I made a long shot and then several others, following the three men down the street. They stopped in front of Avery’s chauffeur-driven car, and let him down. He was smiling as he jumped into the auto and I made some more photos”.

Presidents in Japan

President Obama is currently under fire for his obvious yet unreciprocated bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. The conservatives defined this deference as an inappropriate gesture for a President of the United States, while the president’s defenders noted this showed Mr. Obama’s cultural sensitivities. No matter what symbolisms meant, this marks another episode in faux-pas-ridden relations between the U.S. and its former WWII enemy.

When Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during the WWII, visited the U.S. in 1971, President Richard Nixon bowed to him. In November 1974, Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to visit Japan. He didn’t pack his formal trousers, and attended an imperial ceremony in Japan’s extremely formal court in borrowed trousers which were too short for the president. The media had a field day, but Ford–who was an Eagle Scout–joked that scouting still ran in his veins and that his visit to Japan proved that he still liked to go around in short pants.

[President Ford also encouraged people to wear “WIN” buttons as part of a plan to “Whip Inflation Now.” Bob Hope joked about Ford’s trip to Japan, “Hirohito gave the president a jeweled sword with a crest of the Imperial Order of the Setting Sun, and the President gave him a WIN button. The president told him, ‘Millions of Americans are wearing these.’ And Hirohito said, ‘I know. We make them.’]

In 1992, on his state visit, President George H.W. Bush vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Earlier in 1989, while attending Emperor Hirohito’s funeral, Bush committed the same controversy as Obama by bowing deeply in front of the emperor’s casket. The issue was further complicated by the fact that as a flight-pilot, Bush was shot out of the sky by the Japanese. While being pressed about his bow, Bush wavered, noting members of his squadron who never came home, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to keep the emperor system.

In 1994, Bill Clinton was criticized for almost bowing to Akihito. Liberal The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan.”

(Above photo was by Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse)

Castro at the Lincoln Memorial

Between April 15 and April 26 1959–a few months after he took power in Cuba–Fidel Castro went to the United States, invited by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In one of those forgotten episodes of the Cold War, Castro went to the US for loans. Castro hired one of the best public relations firms to present his new government. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hot dogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard cut a popular figure easily promoted as an authentic hero.

However President Eisenhower did not believed Castro’s talk of neutralism in the Cold War. Instead of meeting Castro, Eisenhower left Washington to play golf. Vice President Nixon met Castro in a 3-hour long meeting. Nixon asked about elections, and Castro told him that the Cuban people did not want elections. Nixon complained that Castro was “either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline.” His guess, he said, was the former.

Fidel Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial–where the moment was immortalized by his photographer Alfredo Korda–and he met the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and told them that he would not expropriate the property of Americans and that he was against dictatorships and for a free press. He went back to Cuba denying that he was a communist because communism was the dictatorship of a single class and meant hatred and class struggle. After his visit to the United States, he would go on to join forces with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, signing into law many Communist-inspired laws starting the next month.

Fidel Castro remained an admirer of Abraham Lincoln for the next half a century. He had a bust of Lincoln in his office, and wrote that Lincoln was devoted “to the just idea that all citizens are born free and equal”, and once even saying, “Long Live Lincoln!”

Famine in Uganda

Taken in Karamoja district, Uganda in April 1980, the contrasting hands of a starving boy and a missionary spoke louder than any world leader and any news story about the famine in Uganda. Karamoja region has the driest climate in Uganda and was prone to droughts. The 1980 famine in there where 21% of the population (and 60% of the infants) died was one of the worst in history. The worst recorded famine was the great Finn famine (1696), which killed a third of the population.

The photographer Mike Wells, who would later win the World Press Photo Award for this photo, admitted that he was ashamed to take the photo. The same publication that sat on his picture for five months without publishing it entered it into a competition. He was embarrassed to win as he never entered the competition himself, and was against winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death.

Famine, drought and ethnic violence continue to this day in Karamoja. The Karamojong are a nomadic people, but since Idi Amin years in the 1970s, their nomadic patterns were curtailed due to the increase of cross border security, internal raids, and influx of weapons which enabled them to lead raids.

Cherid Barkaoun

“Portrait de Cherid Barkaoun” was one of Marc Garanger’s pictures of Algerian women taken during in the early 1960s. The image of Barkaoun, “mournful but proud, large eyes kohl-rimmed, hair braided, absently clutching a scarf to her chest as if to keep hold of some sliver of privacy”, as the New York Times put it, reaches across half a century and remains a poignant symbol of oppression by the French and her tribal elders alike.

During the early 1960s, the French authorities required Algerians to have identity cards and a conscript in the French Army, Marc Garanger, was ordered to shoot their portraits. He photographed some 2,000 Algerian women, many of whom had been veiled throughout their adult lives until they uncovered themselves for Granger’s camera. If taking these images was a violation to these women and their cultural beliefs, their cultural beliefs themselves were also violation of their individual rights. It turned Mr. Garanger against French rule and through the humanity of his subjects, he conveyed their anger, oppression and resistance.

“In 1960, I was doing my military service in Algeria. The French army had decided that the indigenous peoples were to have a French identity card. I was asked to photograph all the people in the surrounding villages. I took photographs of nearly two thousand persons, the majority of whom were women, at a rate of about two hundred a day. The faces of the women moved me greatly. They had no choice. They were required to unveil themselves and let themselves be photographed. They had to sit on a stool, outdoors, before a white wall. I was struck by their pointblank stares, first witness to their mute, violent protest.

To express myself with my eye, I took up my camera. To shout my disagreement. For twenty-four months I never stopped, sure that one day I would be able to testify. To tell stories with these images… all of this I did with more force than the dominant military ideology of the era that surrounded me with hatred and violence. My spirits revolt was proportionate to the horrors that I witnessed,” later recalled Garanger. Equally memorable and haunting are Garanger’s later photographs of the Algerian War collected in the 1984 album La Guerre d’Algérie vue par un appelé du contingent. Garanger viewed the publications as a riposte to France’s collective amnesia about the Occupation of North Africa.

Garanger later worked as a freelance photographer in all the republics of the Soviet Union. In 1966 he received the Prix Niepce, one of the most important photography awards in France.