One day, Steven Nestor was outbid on eBay. “To this day,” he says, “I remember one image that I never got.” He was at the time collecting photographs of Germans from the early twentieth century. He had his eyes set on two colour slides, preferring one over the other. One was of a bloodied German officer with a bandage wrapped around his head, the other “a snapshot—it was out of focus—a side profile of a German soldier with quite harsh sunlight [on him]—his helmet—you just saw his nose and his chin and maybe a shoulder and [he] was right at the bottom of the frame, almost as if he had suddenly risen up” at the moment the image was taken. “Structurally, it was absolutely perfect.” The image was at the nexus of Nestor’s intellectual and professional interests—he studied History and German in UCD, Photography in DIT and is now finishing a Masters in Art and Research Collaboration (ARC) in IADT—and it would have been perfect for a future project. He bid forty euros. It sold for one hundred.
The future project that photograph would have been perfect for is his upcoming exhibition, Bellum et Pax, which will be shown at The Tara Building as part of this year’s PhotoIreland Festival. It is based on a dummy photobook of the same name that was submitted to the Fotobook Kassel Dummy Awards, in 2015. The exhibition is a curated body of images of Germany before, during and after World War II, images of unknown provenance, bought online and collected. While the photograph of the German soldier Nestor wanted never did make it into the exhibition, his preference for it over the other more sensational image informs the choice of those that did. Behind the exhibition is the intention to break up the ‘received narrative’ we have of the Third Reich: the story everyone knows and is comfortable with, the Hollywood one, the one where “you think black and white, rabid speeches, armies wiping villages off maps.” He wants to complicate such reductive, near-mythical images by showing what would have been too jarringly un-dramatic to make the cut.
An image of a street march in Bellum et Pax: Of the people bearing swastikas, some are smiling, some are serious, some are bored. What was running through their heads at that moment? Were their feet sore from marching around? The idea is not to present a revisionist version of history but, says Nestor, a “nuanced, complicated narrative of people who had ordinary lives”, where “the big event was baking a cake, falling in and out of love, admiring a new car.” In these images, everyday life—which is to say moments of tedious inconveniences and simple pleasures—has an unfailing way of intruding into the most exalted and exciting of times. Even at the most electric of Nazi rallies, it can’t be kept at bay. However tightly gripped by the most hysterical of ideological fervour, you can’t scream for that long without having to stop for a sip of water.
Nestor acknowledges that such an approach to a historical period, in a photography project, is trodden ground. In 2007, the Archive of Modern Conflict published Nein, Onkel: Snapshots from Another Front 1938-1945, a volume of collected photographs of Nazi soldiers, often young boys, getting up to what their mothers would have been thoroughly ashamed of them for: exuberant silliness. Here are soldiers, if not actually then at least mentally off-the-clock (and, according to Norman Ohler’s recent Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, often off-their-tits), frolicking with animals or in drag. Bellum et Pax, however, apart from dealing with a much more extended timeline, has a radically different tone. What might have been perfectly benign images of play and rest in Nein, Onkel, here become something else. Children pretending to be soldiers become young people rehearsing for war, and a chill hovers over those dozing in the shade.
But Nein, Onkel is not the sole precedent. If his approach to history in Bellum et Pax is trodden ground, it is so also because he himself has been there before. When a project in college required him to use images made by other people, Nestor found what he needed where things you-never-thought-would-ever-be-needed stay, the beta version of eBay, the attic. There he found a box of negatives of photographs his father took almost fifty years ago. Those photographs became a project called, in dedication to his father, The Accidental Photographer. In 2014, Nestor compiled a series of photographs he found online of the governor of colonial South West Africa, General Lothar von Trotha, into a book, Von Trothas fahrt nach Südwest!.
To describe Steven Nestor as a photographer, then, would not be quite accurate. The tendency to using historical images of unknown origins, taken by people who almost certainly intended them to remain private, pulls his artistic practice into something like an amalgam of photography, history and historiography. “Steven’s practice is very interesting because he has kind of stopped being a photographer and has become more of a collector, trying to make sense of his collections,” says Ángel Luis González, Founder and Director of PhotoIreland. “Curator or editor would probably be closest, with a background in photography”, Nestor weighs in, when asked about preferred appellations. “Did I need that background in photography to be a good judge of these images? My answer would be, ‘‘Yes, but…’’’
Nestor works with the photographs in Bellum et Pax the way an historian might, piecing them together into a larger image that would, to some extent, illuminate the past, always aware that it is elusive, and that hindsight, contrary to the adage, is not always 20/20. “Even though these photographs, to me, really add a layer of complexity and depth and confusion to that time—in a good way—so that it’s not a monochromatic and flat narrative of evil, full stop—there’s still vast amounts that are unknowable—as much as our lives now will be, in many ways, unknowable” to future generations. “All I’m interested in is, Do you like the image? Does it speak to you? Does it ask a question?”
In a 1996 project called Interrail, Steven Nestor quoted the opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ More than ten years later, in Bellum et Pax, the proverb returns as a question. Is the past a foreign country? Yes, but…
Words: Olen Bajarias
Photo: Killian Broderick