In 1930, Germany still faced an economic crisis from the First World War and the resulting Treaty of Versailles. Artists and writers alike, disgusted by the pathetic state in which the war left them, began a movement now called the Return to Order. Among them, the photographer August Sander sought to capture real life on film during his nation’s period of chaos and confusion so that people could feel a sense of community through empathy. Most of his pictures between WWI and WWII are of poor working class men and occasionally impoverished working class women. The picture of this study, however, represents his slight deviation from that regular pattern. Dubbing them the “Last People,” Sander preserved the faces of the disabled. “Blind Children” stands out the most in his collection of disabled people because there is an undeniable symbolic meaning in the photo that is not often seen in his collection. Through the title, contrast, and symbolism in this photo, the two girls not only convey an atmosphere of collective mutual understanding but also an air of individual emotion.
At first glance of Sander’s photo collection of people, it is obvious that he wished to mask the individual. By doing so, he enabled the viewer to relate easily with the subject matter. With the exception of family photos, titles would only give the station of work for the individual and also the region’s name. For instance, this photo is entitled “Blind Children, Düren.” Giving the name of hamlets and cities allows the onlooker—especially a contemporary German—to feel less isolated. It is a concept found in the Return to Order movement: universal understanding. If Sander revealed any specifics, he would ultimately destroy any connection one could make with the two children in the picture. Still, detachment would persist if he did not give enough information, thus explaining his reason for naming the town. In this way, the title reflects a juncture of collective and individual.
Although it was his only option at the time, the fact that Sander shot photos in black and white only served to make his photos more universal. To modern eyes, black and white photos give off a feeling of timelessness—black and white make something seem old and traditional, yet a photo is time standing still eternally—, which is another asset of the Return to Order. In this photo, though, black and white was what Sander wanted the viewer to see. The dark-haired girl on the left is in a black dress with white floral embroidery and black stockings; the light-haired girl on the right is in a muted, dull color that will be referred to as “white” furthermore. This contrast seems to suggest the girl in black is in a state of turmoil and darkness, and her counterpart is in a state of order and harmony with herself. Surely Germans at this time experienced this divide. The photograph implies that people can stand strong if there is balance between black and white: a golden mean.
Following this observation of color, one cannot ignore the deception of their attire. From appearance alone, one would assume the girl in the clean, black dress would be stronger and more outgoing than the girl in the unkempt, dirty outfit, whom one would presume is in an unkempt state of mind. This is not the case, as can be determined from both girls’ stances and facial expressions. The girl in black has a weak, clenched fist and is leaning against the other girl. Her legs seem unsteady, and her other hand is against her friend. Whether the girls are friends or not in reality is not important; in this photo, they are friends because their arms are interlocked. In addition to this, the fair-tressed girl has a hand over the dark-haired girl’s hand as if she is reassuring her. There are glimmers of hope in the weaker girl’s darkness, as is represented by the white flowers. A flower is delicate and requires nurture to grow. Her nurture is through order—her friend. Sander’s photos encouraged his fellow Germans to lean against each other through a commune sense of empathy. In his mind, if someone saw that another person was experiencing a similar situation, then he or she would feel encouraged to stand strong.
Finally, the concrete subject matter is probably the most striking element of the picture. The girls are blind. The leaning girl has her eyes closed, and it is not hard to imagine her being blind. What is odd is that the girl in white stands assertively and upright, with her eyes open. She is staring straight into the camera. Bohn-Spector says about Sander’s photos of the disabled, “Their inability to communicate with their eyes is haunting and underscores their status as social outcasts.” She also claims that many of the “Last People” look away from the camera out of shame. The irony in “Blind Children” is great: a blind girl is staring with open lids at the camera. Perhaps the observer thinks that the leaning child should be blind and the other her caretaker. Some people were blind to the realities of World War I and suffered from it, and others, though victims of the War too, endured the hardship. With this photograph, Sander displays universal understanding and power in harmony.
August Sander, a participant and survivor of the First World War, captured the lives of his people. He wished to demonstrate the realities of such chaos. His galleries united a broken people because after seeing his photos, the wretched people realized they were not in complete isolation. There were other victims of the War who were willing to share some of the pain and be there for their brethren. “Blind Children” is an example of how Sander’s photos display individuals but not individualistic notions. There is a golden mean between individualism and collectivism, as well as a balance between chaos and order.
Bohn-Spector, Claudia. In Focus: August Sander Photographs from the J. Paul Getty
Museum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.
 Claudia Bohn-Spector, In Focus: August Sander Photographs from the J. Paul Getty
Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000), 82.