The monumental photographic exhibitions shown in many parts of the world during the first post-war decades were an important landmark in the history of photography. In this paper, two of the exhibitions became the starting point for a discussion about the perception of the medium of photography and its function in the 1950s and 1960s. The first, titled The Family of Man, was set up in 1955 by American photographer and curator Edward Steichen; the second, organised less than a decade later, was the worldwide exhibition Was ist der Mensch?, by the Austro-German journalist Karl Pawek. The two projects, although generally based on the same ideological and structural principles – a spatial installation building a narrative of a humanist nature – are antithetical to each other in terms of approach to the subject. Rooted in the complex context of the cultural, social, and political post-war period, they reveal a number of tensions hidden behind the strategies of constructing a visual narrative. The author mainly focuses on the issue of the representation of World War II experiences in photography, especially its most poignant event – the Holocaust. Stories about the human condition and realities of the contemporary iconosphere are investigated through relevant images. The reflections are based on case studies – the reception of these exhibitions in Germany and Poland. The analysis is supported by little known theories by Karl Pawek, by the voices of historians and critics of photography, as well as the latest developments on the subject. By revealing the circumstances of the reception of these projects and the resonance of their humanistic message questions are raised about ways of understanding the medium of photography within the broader history of visual culture. An important theme in the discussion are changes in the way we reflect on photography – criticism of a medium perceived as a visual language of universal character, taking into account the fundamental role of the historical, social, and cultural context in the process of creating meaning and interpreting images.
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