In These Stunning Images, Ordinary Yugoslav Partisans Captured Their Revolution on Camera

Most of the fighters who joined the partisan struggle in World War II Yugoslavia had never even held a camera, let alone considered themselves photographers. Yet organized efforts to create a “partisan photography” helped carry the image of their struggle to the masses — and showed that artistic production wasn’t just for professionals.

One of the few photos taken in color shows girls from Bukovica, Croatia, who brought clothes and food to the partisans in 1944. Author: Živko Gattin.

Between 1941 and 1945, the partisan fight led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia grew into Europe’s biggest popular uprising against fascism. The people’s liberation struggle fought not only against the German and Italian occupation, but also the domestic traitors and collaborators of the Ustaše and the Chetniks. This was, at the same time, a fight for social revolution, the democratization of the economy, and the complete emancipation of a semifeudal and largely illiterate society.

Despite these successes, historical revisionism is today rampant in the former Yugoslavia. It is most visible in the relativization and denial of the crimes perpetrated by fascist movements, which works in tandem with a mounting hostility toward national minorities and migrants, and a steady rise of the Right, also characteristic of most European countries today. But this process first began with the mass destruction of anti-fascist monuments — in Croatia alone, more than 3,000 monuments have been destroyed.

This has meant criminalizing the partisans who helped liberate Yugoslavia from fascism, exaggerating the number of their “victims,” and equating socialist Yugoslavia with fascist and Nazi regimes — all counted as bloody totalitarianisms. Recently, there has been a relegitimization of the Ustaše salute “Za dom spremni!” (“Ready for the Homeland!” — the Croatian version of the “sieg hail”): it appears, for instance, in a song by far-right singer Marko Perković Thompson, but has also been used by some politicians and war veterans.

This very modern historical revisionism was one of the reasons I decided to publish Red Light: Yugoslav Partisans’ Photography and Social Movement 1941–1945. It provides a pioneering analysis of partisan photography in the former Yugoslavia during World War II, while seeking to portray the historic context and production conditions in which partisan photography was born. Partisan cultural production was at the core of Yugoslav revolutionary and anti-fascist activity, with the goal of agitating the population, spreading literacy, promoting political activism, and attaining emancipation.

The protagonists of partisan art included cultural workers and amateurs, but also authors who did not have any specific professional or occupational knowledge. The partisan photography of World War II sought to spread the revolutionary message — but it was also an attempt to democratize culture itself.

The Revolution in Photography

The Yugoslav partisans were hardly the first revolutionaries to use photography in this manner. Red Light starts off with an analysis of the role of photography in the Paris Commune — the first photographically documented revolution — and a short overview of photography between the world wars.

The basic role of partisan photography was to win not just the armed conflict, but also a battle occurring at the level of representation. The partisans sought to fight on this terrain despite their material and technical limitations; indeed, they could not compete with the propaganda machine of their superior domestic enemies, or still less with the Nazis, who saw photography as a literal weapon to be wielded by well-organized propaganda units (Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht).

Yet, Red Light argues that partisan photography ought not to be seen exclusively through the prism of agitation and propaganda, and questions the political significance of photography as a medium. In this sense, it is important to deal with the wider understanding of media and its revolutionary potential, as discussed by Walter Benjamin in his well-known 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Therein, Benjamin holds that the effect of this medium is not just that it irreversibly destroys the aura of an artwork, but that it feeds the potential “formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”

As well as educated photographers who were part of the movement, other partisans were trained in using cameras. The photographs that were produced provided material for the creation of bulletin boards, newspapers, and photo albums. Photography was used in the production of falsified documents, in the creation of a partisan archive, and finally for exhibitions held in cities and even the forests of liberated areas.

At first, partisan photography operated outside of any centralized propaganda system and was left to the photographers themselves, with no supervision of their work until 1943. That year saw Italy’s capitulation and a weakening of the British and American conditions on support for Yugoslavia’s Communist-led partisans, who gradually became the country’s only Allied-recognized, anti-fascist movement. 1944 saw a systematization of the production of photographs through photo services and agitation-propaganda (agitprop) offices, within which all cultural activity was organized.

The book recognizes the fact that partisan photography was characterized by its social role, its propagandistic function, and its very poor conditions of production. But it also tries to grasp the topic at a more holistic level, in order to understand its artistic and documentary value. From a propaganda standpoint, photography was primarily a semantic carrier of the message of building a new world — but it also served to agitate the wider masses to help build that world.

From the very beginning, we see a balance between the “free author” approach of partisan photographers and the later attempts to develop a comprehensive system of information and propaganda. Throughout World War II, the partisan photographer faced the threat of their negatives being destroyed, and was therefore unable to create an archive — indeed, there was also the strong possibility of the photographer himself being eliminated. This is, in part, the reason for the great freedom of the partisan photographer, and the plurality of opinions visible in the surviving negatives.

The Partisan Archive

The political importance of these photographic efforts is partly apparent in the fact that the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug was established as early as November 5, 1943 — four years before the first international photography agency, Magnum Photos. Many partisan photographers learned their trade during the war as reportage photographers, which took place just four years after the establishment of Life magazine, a new publication that laid the foundations for photojournalism as we know it today.

Many of the photographs in this book do not have a credited author — but that should not be viewed only as a shortcoming. In the fight against fascism, most photographers followed a common idea and motivation, undertaking collective action in pursuit of a clear and shared goal.

Seeking out the material for Red Light was done at a time when partisan photography — alongside partisan and Yugoslav heritage more broadly — has become unwanted in the countries built on the ruins of socialist Yugoslavia. Many archives are closed off to researchers, and even the publication of a book like this one is hailed as an act of civic courage. A large part of the archive, especially the negatives and photographs, has not been adequately preserved and has been left to slowly disappear.

That is why the presentation of these photographs today represents a confrontation with revisionist narratives — a fight to uphold the legacy of the freedom fighter, today portrayed as a terrorist. It stands in the way of the kind of false narratives pushed by the Council of Europe resolution 1481 (passed in 2006), which in its sweeping condemnation of the “crimes of totalitarian communist regimes” puts our partisan photographers on an equal footing with their Nazi tormentors.

Red Light is a story of a movement that managed to create a systematic means of portraying its battles — and its own contradictions — even faced with seemingly impossible conditions. To a certain degree, it also confronts the colonizing view of the Balkans as a place of intolerance and inner conflict. These photographs tell the story of a victorious fight against a much stronger enemy, achieving the ideal of brotherhood and unity and lasting peace.

The central place of photography in contemporary social and political conflicts invites the question of its potential to change public opinion, open spaces of public discussion, and promote solidarity across national borders. And to explain how the battle for representation can be won — whether it is a partisan struggle for freedom, or the struggles of other social and revolutionary movements today.


Detail from the exhibition of partisan photography held in Livno, Bosnia and Herzegovina, November 27, 1943. Author unknown. (Courtesy of the Museum of the Revolution of the People of Yugoslavia / znaci.net). The exhibition was organized in honor of the second session of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia. Due to poor production conditions, the photographs were extremely difficult to print, so they were most often used to make wall newspapers and exhibitions, which were organized in the liberated territory and sometimes in the forest.
Members of the Theater of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia during the preparation for a play held in honor of the second session of the Anti-Fascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia in Jajce, 1943. Photographed by Žorž Skrigin. From left to right: singer, dancer, choreographer, and opera director Anika Radosevic, photographer and ballet dancer Žorž Skrigin, and actress Nada Borozan. Skrigin left Zagreb together with a group of cultural workers from the Croatian National Theater on April 22, 1942, after which they founded the first partisan cultural institution, the Theater of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia. Skrigin was a prominent ballet dancer in the theater, but also a photographer active in the Photo Club Zagreb.
Nurse Milja Toroman photographed in the winter of 1943. Photographed by Žorž Skrigin. (Courtesy of Museum of Yugoslavia). Seen from today’s perspective, this photo is reminiscent of photos of female Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War or contemporary photos of female Kurdish fighters. The idea of ​​photography is the same, suggesting that women stand side-by-side with men and seek to change the traditional paradigm where women are intended to play the role of mothers and caregivers.
American playwright Walter Bernstein on his way to Drvar, Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spring of 1944. Bernstein was mobilized as a journalist to work for the US military. He went to Yugoslavia on his own initiative, contrary to orders, and was the first to interview partisan leader Josip Broz Tito. On the same night of the interview, he was arrested by soldiers from the American mission located at the partisan Supreme Headquarters. (Yugoslavia at this time was subject to both occupation and an information blockade from the still pro-royalist Allies.) During his stay with the partisans, Bernstein hung out with the partisan photographer Živko Gattin. After World War II, he fell victim to the McCarthyite witch hunt. The first delegation to reach the partisans with the US military’s permission arrived only on May 9, 1944.
The village of Ljutoč on Mount Papuk, Croatia, 1944; home for the disabled persons of the 4th Corps. Photograph by Miro Matašin. (Courtesy of the Croatian History Museum). Red Light points to some partisan photographers who have never been named before, such as the Croatian photographer Matašin, who took his entire photographic laboratory with him when he joined the partisans.
Muslim women at a rally of the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front. Photographed by Drago Mazar. (Courtesy of the Archives of Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina). The Women’s Anti-Fascist Front had about two million members. In addition to being in charge of mobilizing women for work and a support network for the partisan struggle, this organization also assumed the task of educating women in literacy and in political understanding. Unfortunately, this important instrument of women’s emancipation ceased to exist in 1953.
The cover of a partisan photographic manual made by Slovenian partisan photographer Milan Stok, 1944. This unique manual for partisan photographers deals with both photographic techniques and revolutionary topics.

Lepa Radić, a national hero, just before she was hanged in Bosanska Krupa, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Author undetermined. (Courtesy of Dragoje Lukić). Intimidating photographs of the hanging of this 17-year-old girl eventually became perhaps the most famous photographs of suffering, and a symbol of the crimes committed on Yugoslav territory. As a member of the Second Krajina Detachment, nurse Radić was in charge of evacuating the wounded. On February 8, 1943, she was discovered by soldiers of the notorious 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen. After the firing of the last bullets, Radić was subdued by the blows of rifle butts and taken to Bosanska Krupa, where after three days of captivity she was publicly hanged under an acacia tree not far from the train station. For years, the identity of the girl in the photo was unknown, only to be discovered quite by accident by a visitor to a museum in Mostar. The photos were themselves found by accident with a German soldier killed during the liberation in 1945. The hanging of civilians was ubiquitous on the territory of Yugoslavia. Public hangings and executions were methods of terrorizing the population; retaliation and extermination were especially practiced in Southern and Eastern Europe where much of the population was attacked by racial laws. Documentation of these executions became evidence that military orders had been fulfilled, but also acted as “trophies” for German soldiers. It also built on the historic use of public hangings to humiliate underprivileged groups.
Stjepan Filipović, national hero, just before he was hanged on May 22, 1942. Photographed by Slobodanka Vasić. (Courtesy of Valjevo.znaci.net). This photograph of Stjepan Filipović (or Stevan Kolubarac, as he was called in Serbia) was one of the partisan photographs that spread the most outside of Yugoslavia’s borders. Filipović was an active trade unionist before the war and joined the partisans at the beginning of the uprising, first as the deputy commander of the Kolubara company, then as the political commissar of the Macvan partisan detachment. After his capture, the Serbian-nationalist Chetniks handed him to German forces, who decided to hang him in public in the center of Valjevo as a warning to others. This photograph of the twenty-six-year-old Filipović under the gallows, with a noose around his neck and his arms raised, was taken just minutes before his life was taken. Brought in front of about 3,000 people in the town’s central square, he showed not humiliation but defiance, and addressed the crowd with the words: “Don’t just watch, hit the bastards. Take out the rusty rifles. If you just watch, the bastards will kill us one by one.”
“Woman in struggle and work.” Wall newspaper. Photo section of the Regional People’s Liberation Committee of Dalmatia. (Courtesy of the Croatian History Museum, HPM/MRNH-F-11963). Right at the beginning of the People’s Liberation Struggle, women won the right to vote for the first time. According to various estimates, over 100,000 women fought in the partisan movement. This also had an important emancipatory potential, as it was the first time women took part politically in the creation of a new society. However, it should be emphasized that the struggle for women’s rights had only just begun, and there were great differences between proclaimed attitudes and reality on the ground. Elvira Kohn was one of the few female partisan photographers.
Mother Knežopoljka. Photographed by Žorž Skrigin in the village of Knežpolje, Kozara, Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the Sixth Enemy Offensive, January 1944. (Courtesy of the Museum of Yugoslavia, III-807). This iconic photograph was taken by Žorž Skrigin at the end of 1943. It shows Milica Tepic, mother and wife of the fallen national hero Branko Tepic, with her son Branko and daughter Dragica. The Croatian art historian and curator Želimir Koščević aptly compared it to the well-known photograph Migrant Mother taken by Dorothea Lang in 1936. Behind the young mother and the widow, the sharp winter sun is only partially breaking through the dark clouds, which Skrigin subsequently illuminated in the photo lab to further emphasize the contrast and drama of the content presented. In conditions far removed from those of Allied and German photographers, he took a photograph that gained additional value over time. This, mostly because it successfully applied elements recognized in art history, is a well-known work of Skrigin’s, its success owed to his rich prewar photographic experience. Managing to communicate its message outside the Yugoslav context, this is a good example of how photography can disseminate certain messages — in this case, the suffering of civilians, the horrors of war, but also heroic efforts presented through the stereotypical figure of the mother.
Winter, in the snow. Poljane in January 21, 1945. Photographed by Aleksander Jesenovec. (Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary History, Ljubljana, Slovenia, SJ2/6; cropped for formatting). From left to right: Iva Valenti, administrator of the Ninth Corps Operations Department; Stanko Gorjanc, head of the Geodetic Section; Lieutenant Mitar Raičević; and a partisan who took care of the administration of the Ninth Corps Operations Department for a while, later becoming a primary school teacher. In the background is the house where the headquarters of the Ninth Corps was located during World War II. Some of the photographs of partisan life seem to have a normality apparently at odds with wartime conditions, as if denying the horrors of war. We often see relaxed and smiling faces, happiness at the first snow or the opportunity to swim. The bodies are relaxed and often individualized despite the military uniforms. Photographs of partisan life are also valuable because they provide us with direct insight into the way of life within the temporary communities formed in the liberated territory.
Milinklade in Sutjeska in June 9, 1943. Photographed by Žorž Skrigin. (Copied from the book War and Stage, Tourist Press Belgrade, 1968). The Battle of Sutjeska (or Operation Schwarz) in June 1943 was the decisive battle of World War II in Yugoslavia. Faced with Wehrmacht troops, the People’s Liberation Army finally managed to break through the German lines at Sutjeska. But three brigades and a hospital with over 2,000 wounded were left surrounded, and on Hitler’s orders, German commander-in-chief General Alexander Löhr organized their execution. It is estimated that more than 7,543 partisans died, including 597 women.
Celje, 1942. Author undetermined. (Courtesy of the Celje Museum of Contemporary History). Death was an integral part of Nazi ideology and culture, as visible through trappings such as skulls, bones, knives, and sometimes even various occult rituals. Hitler himself — one of whose favorite operas was Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” — considered death a sublime form, and in Nazi Germany one of art’s tasks was to build up a cult of death. But whereas it was thus only logical that photographs of Hitler’s own dead comrades were used in Nazi propaganda, partisans did not photograph their dead — seeing this not as a source of pride but as a show of defeat.