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“Arbeitslos” by August Sander

“Arbeitslos” by August Sander Free Essay

Pictures have the power of describing their era and giving viewers a subjective but fair image of the reality that the author has conveyed. Through them, people can see what life is like through the camera prism in a different time, area, and imagination. The picture “Arbeitslos” by August Sander has such a power; it gives the viewers an idea of Germany in the twenties, right before the economic crisis and the rise of Nazism. The picture, which captures the essence of powerlessness and economic hardships of German citizens, is a frame of the epoch which welcomed Nazis after the failure of democracy in the country. The author manages to show a simple man with all his pain and struggles in one photo as well as foreshadow what was coming next in Germany and the entire world.

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The picture, which was taken in 1928, right before the economic crisis in the world, is the final work in the “Face of the Time” series, and one of the few survivals of the Nazi rule (“August Sander. Arbeitslos”, n.d.). The picture’s name literally translates as the loss of the job, and it depicts a man standing on the street corner, looking into nothingness. Although unemployment is always an issue in most countries, in Germany of that time losing a job was almost like death. The twenties were a tough period for the country; although there was some economic stability in the middle of the decade, the country suffered from hyperinflation and deep social problems. After losing in the First World War, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, creating Weimer Republic, the fact that most Germans viewed as a treachery to the state and their national ideas (Williamson, 2005). It was one of the major reasons for the rise of anti-Semitism in the country (Williamson, 2005). The above-mentioned inflation and economic hardships after the war complicated the situation, which reached its culmination in 1929, with an economic crisis. Just a few years later, in 1932, the Nazis won the elections and came to power in the country, turning Germany into an aggressive state (Williamson, 2005). Only four years separate the described picture and the rise of Nazism in the country, as if the author predicts what will happen to Germany soon. Thus, the shaved man in the picture can be anybody: he can be a German worker, who is out of job; an intellectual, who has been unemployed for months and lost all hope; and he can be a Jew, who was fired because of anti-Semitism in the country and increasing hatred toward everybody who was not white and European.

There is much that the picture shows, and there is even more than the viewers do not see. In the picture, there is an old and clean street. There are leaves on the pedestrian road, and it looks like it rained some time before because there are some traces of mud. Although the street looks empty to the naked eye, when looking closely, one can see the shadows of the people moving away; they just passed the street and are about to reach whatever is before them. Overall, everything looks solemn and empty. There is a man just on the corner of the street, his body leaning on the grey wall behind him. He is wearing a shabby and cheap-looking suit without a tie, down-at-heel shoes, and his jacket looks too big. In his hard-workers’ hands, the man is holding his hat; for some reason, he looks very skinny, as if trying to cover his thinness with clothes, which are too big. The man is clean-shaved, he has no hair. He stares into nothingness before him, and the viewers cannot see what is there. The author made the person look like he was a part of the building, and even his head seems to extend the lines on the wall behind him. The look on the man’s face is ambiguous; it mixes different emotions including despair, submission, wild hopes, anger, fear, and passivity. He is lonely, as it appears, and lost in his thought.

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Since the viewers see the entire street and the man on it, they realize that the author took a long shot, which blends the man in the picture with the background a bit, but also provides a sharp contrast between his unrest and the calm solemnity of the street he is on. It also creates the distance between the man and the viewers; they can analyze and evaluate him, and, at the same time, they know they are not him. They are living in a different era with other problems, and all they can do is to empathize with the person without fully embracing the risks of the ominous epoch which is coming later. Since the author uses front view, he places strong emphasis on the person in the picture, but also shows how insignificant this man is to the empty street. The level angle makes the person equal to his actual proportions and shows that the author wants to present a realistic picture to the viewers.

The framing of the picture is very interesting since the viewers are missing some of the most important- if not the most important – parts of the entire picture. The audience sees a man, but they never get to see what he sees. What is there, in that direction he is looking at? Knowing that would explain many of the questions the picture asks. What if the man is looking at the factory he used to work for? Or maybe, he is looking at an expensive store, which is now unavailable to him? He may be looking at some people, who are protesting against the governmental policies – or – against Jews urging the employers to fire them. What if the man is looking at nothing so the street in his view is empty and not significant? Then the viewers will assume that he is actually looking into his soul and thinking about his new situation.

The photographer does not use any artificial light in the picture, and there are few contrasts except for the glimpse of light in-between the streets where the man is standing. However, he is a part of shadowy street. The man is main focus and the sharpest part of the photo, distant from all of the unfocused objects. The scale of the picture is realistic as everything is kept in correct proportions, and the viewers see the street as it is. It is interesting how the picture is full of geometric shapes and straight lines and strikes with its preciseness. The black and white photo gives the viewers a feeling of nostalgia, of the past, and the loss.

The picture fascinates and creates powerful imagery in the viewers’ heads as it makes them think about what is portrayed and what remains hidden. The man in the picture is central to the author’s concept, but his vision can be anything, and there is much to guess about. The picture  not only explains a lot about pre-Nazi Germany and the reason it experienced Nazism and its horrors, but also reflects the soul of a simple man in Germany of the twenties, which is priceless.

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