The World Aflame Uses Color to Make Us See History’s Darker Moments

Marina Amaral and Dan Jones’ new book colorizes early to mid-20th century war photos to draw a parallel between our present and past. British historian Dan Jones and Brazilian artist Marina Amaral open their new book, The World Aflame: A New History of War and Revolution: 1914–1945, with a simple admonishment: “The world is fragile,” they warn.

“It takes less than we think to set it aflame.” Jones and Amaral couldn’t have known that they’d be publishing their book at a time when everything seems so brittle. Though perhaps, as they show in their book, nothing in the annals of history was ever as strong as we’re made to believe.

The World Aflame offers 200 newly colorized photos from a 31-year span of global history. Much of the book focuses on the first and second World Wars, but it also includes images from the civil war in Ireland, the colonial war in Morocco, and the Russian revolutions among other subjects.

Alongside the pictures are small essays, explanations that help bring the old histories into current contexts. To witness these moments reanimated is to experience emotional vertigo, to understand that a photograph is not a tableau — it’s simply a heartbeat from a day gone by.

Warsaw Ghetto.

“The most powerful thing that colorization can do is to break the barrier that exists between past and present,” Amaral tells me, “making it possible for us to connect in a much deeper way with the people and historical events portrayed.”

The emotional vertigo I experienced as a reader and viewer of Amaral and Jones’ book pales in comparison to the emotional work of colorization itself. According to Amaral, getting close to the people she is colorizing is a part of the process. “It is not easy to work on certain photos because I get very close to the subject during the colorization process,” she says. “I really don’t think there is a way to create an emotional distance because I spend hours working on the same image.”

“Colorization can break the barrier that exists between past and present.”

Amaral and Jones are explicit about the intention of their book: At a time when authoritarian governments are murdering people through their neglect of the Covid-19 pandemic, they want to ensure that violence, both past and present, is never whitewashed.

Harlem Hellfighter.

Amaral, who Wired crowned the “master of colorization,” has made a career of this sort of art. The detail in Amaral’s colorized photos is remarkable: photos of crowds where people’s faces and clothes were colorized one by one, military uniforms restored to their original color with subsequent shadows and lighting, photos of Auschwitz prisoners with attention to blemishes and cuts on their skin. Her past work colorizing photos of Auschwitz prisoners in partnership with the Auschwitz museum and reinterpreting images of slaves in Brazil from the 1800s are particularly moving. Though there’s some artistic license taken — she can’t know the color of every article of clothing — Amaral said she does quite a bit of research before the colorization process, which allows her to see, for example, what colors were most popular among certain objects and items in a particular time period.

“Photographs are historical documents,” she says, “so I need to be very respectful and make color choices that fit with the historical period they are portraying.”

The idea, as Amaral explained, was to see not just the soul in those who suffered but also in those who caused the suffering. That can be an ugly and challenging process, but it’s ultimately one that she believes can instill a proper sense of alarm around our current political struggles. “Realizing that Hitler was real brings us closer to the sad and violent reality that resulted from his actions,” she says. “Once we understand that ordinary people, not abstract characters from history books, were responsible for wars and genocides,” she explains, “we can try to learn from the mistakes that were made back then by those who did not notice what was happening, allowing fascists, racists, and hate speech to proliferate.”

Woman at work.

Part of facing history through color is to be intimately acquainted with its gruesome results. Many of the photos in The World Aflame depict post-battle carnages, which are more shocking than before with the added shades of red and mangled skin. Amaral asks that we do not look away. “It is not our job nor our intention to sanitize history,” she says.

Amaral and Jones’ book also seeks to shine a spotlight on some of our war’s lesser-known moments and figures: a colorized photo of portrait artist and sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd, who made lifelike masks to “repair” American veterans’ disfigured faces during World War I, or a 1910 picture of the Zapatistas during the Mexican Revolution. “It is very important to create books that go far beyond the well-known events and people,” Amaral says. “This is important from a historical point of view, but it is also a choice that we made on a personal level. We believe that this is the right thing to do.”

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