At first glance it is likely that very few people will be upset by this book….but look a little closer, and it very quickly becomes apparent that this is one of the most unsettling documents you are ever likely to encounter.
The same way that in the world of cinema (stick with me here), movies like, for example Haneke’s Funny Games, and Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will very often appeal to different demographics. One being understated, subtle. and with, for the most part, implied violence. The other a Gothic no holds barred gore fest.
To be fair both are terrifying, but only one claims to have been inspired by actual events. Coming to them without prior knowledge, it is easy to understand which one would most likely be chosen as the fiction…..which just goes to prove the old adage “never judge a book by it’s cover”.
I have no desire to live in the past, or to blame the generations of today for the deeds of those that preceded them. However, just when we think we have been made aware of all the atrocities committed during the course of the second world war, heard of all the evil that we can bestow on our fellow human beings, reality like an uninvited guest arrives with one more coda.
This is another story, that but for the persistence of one individual, may never have come to light, but is now thrust into our domain, and loudly declares it’s right to be heard.
For the project “I loved my wife”, Belgian artist Dieter De Lathauwer toured Austria documenting what, on first inspection appears to be a collection of relatively mundane buildings. Mostly unassuming, many overgrown, others barely visible behind walls, hidden from view, quietly trying to blend into the background.
The truth as it turns out, couldn’t be further from that benign description, mundane. Originally psychiatric clinics, during the second world war, hundreds of thousands of otherwise healthy men, women and children were admitted to these buildings for reasons of poor mental health.
Once interred, they were then summarily “euthanized” by the very people that would normally have been charged to care for them, purely because the government deemed it uneconomical to keep them alive.
The use of archival images, propaganda film and original work is skilfully blended to present a narrative that subtly, but very effectively hints at one of the darkest and yet also relatively unknown periods from that time.
The superlative editing and sequencing incorporates a range of images that refuses to sensationalize the subject matter. Buildings, ripples on the surface of water, landscapes, portraits of victims, medical staff, even a priest. No chainsaws here, but an implied horror that goes way beyond.
In my opinion one of the most upsetting images, is that of a nurse, head turned down and away from the camera, perhaps (hopefully) in denial. An angle which clearly allows us to focus on the cap she is wearing. This uniform normally associated with one of the most caring and trusted members of our society, given a chilling and awful new significance within the context of the book.
What appears to make this whole episode even more astounding, is that propaganda films existed extolling the virtues of this activity. With one man announcing that he had sacrificed his wife for the good of the fatherland. A brief but devastating quote from his statement becoming the title of the book “……I loved my wife”.
Elegantly and beautifully presented, the book has an open spine binding, giving it the feel of a handmade document or even a scrapbook. It is accompanied by a printed leaflet containing the colophon, maps and documentary notes, and is presented in a two pocketed folder remeniscent of those used for medical records, and with an image tipped onto the cover.
The book, I loved my wife – killing children is good for the economy, has won the 2016 Unseen Dummy Award.
As a photo book it truly deserves the accolade. As a project it is just a travesty that it has to exist at all.
This review first appeared on photobookstore.co.uk