three events of the rising captured in photographs and texts
and their different and changing interpretations over the last fifty years
a kaleidoscopic view

work in progress by Tjebbe van Tijen/Imaginary Museum Projecst Amsterdam & Anna Balint Budapest

photograph John Sadovy
photograph Stefan Moses
photograph Erich Lessing
Lynching and mutilating of AVH (Allamvedelmi Hatosag, State Defense Bureau) officer at Köztársaság Ter (Republic Square), after the siege/attack on the HWP (Hungarian Workers’ Party, Magyar Dolgozók Pártja) Budapest headquarters on 30 October 1956.
Collection of money for victims of the revolution in open suitcases without anybody needing to guard them, Budapest October/November 1956. Some sources indicate that this collection was organized by the Society of Writers on the initiative of a young artist .
Insurgents of the Corvin-Köz fighting group from Pest at the left bank of the Danube with an armored car with a hand painted Hungarian shield (Kossuth shield), some with captured Russian weapons.

Actors, bystanders, onlookers, observers, partisans and neutrals, adversaries and opponents, perpetrators and victims, witnesses that attest, advocate, laud, debate, refute or denounce. Fighters for a just cause, doubters of intentions, purposeful betrayers, and those who deceive others or themselves. All their accounts, testimonies, interviews, confessions and reminiscences form the basis for reportage, inquiries, juridical evidence, and diplomatic missions, amalgamating over time into all kinds of fitting and conflicting historical interpretations

Professional mediators, journalists, reporters, press photographers, commentators, analysts and editors, as well as investigators - either political or juridical - have to decide what they find - or pass off as - true, tentative, doubtful or false. Like the colors of the rainbow one can distinguish between what lays at the opposite ends of the spectrum, what is factual and what is not, but when it comes to differentiating between one color range and its neighbors it may become difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell them apart. The construction of history may be seen as 'a truth finding mission', but its result will be neither stable nor singular.

Gossip and rumor have wings, slander and smearing are hard to wash off, denial can be more than a defense mechanism and become an offensive weapon, even well established facts are not beyond perversion, can be twisted. All these elements occurred - and occur till today - in the continuing aftermath and debate of the 1956 Rising in Hungary.

Duality of the Cold War, "good and evil", "free and un free", often simplified into the economic argument of "capitalism versus communism", made the pendulum that steers public opinion swing up high: "a revolution!", "no, a counter-revolution!!", "freedom fighters", "no, fascist thugs" and so on... In time, the range of deflection on the scale of opinion has diminished, real and mental distance gave space for appraisal and more reflective studies; regimes has withered, some "secrets" ended and have become information sources for a new generation of researchers.


One focal point in time, hardly a fortnight, starting in 1956 with a demonstration on October the 23th, ending with the Soviet invasion on November the 4th, and an aftermath of waning resistance lasting till the middle of December. The number of published reminiscences and collected oral testimonies about those days has steadily grown over the years, but also, many of those involved, who were the only carrier of their personal experience, knowledge and truth, have passed away in silence.

The growth of the historical corpus, the depth of focus created by the passing of time, does not bring us back the original meaning of events, let alone will it produce any final conclusions. Half a century later we may see more clearly the wider relations and consequences of that period, while - at the same moment - our perception of its actual atmosphere is hindered by an intensifying haze. Some of the original ardor and strife lives on in pictures that have become emblematic, in stories that have become mythical.

The aim of this project is to rake up the past, to unearth similar and opposing interpretations of three events of the 1956 Rising. Events represented by three photographs that have become examplary, symbolizing three themes: revenge, solidarity and heroism. Selecting similar photographs of the same theme and event that give another or varying view, that help to better understand the context of the event. Searching for text representations that are directly and indirectly related to the these pictures like news coverage, picture captions and editorials. Following subsequent usage of these pictures in reports, brochures, books, web sites, juridical inquiries, oral history and archival documentation. Finding also pure textual descriptions of and reflections on the three chosen events in the aforementioned type of sources.

Photographs, captions and other indicative texts, and descriptions form three layers of meaning as in classic 'emblem art' with its motto, pictura and subscriptio (also classified as nomenclatura, pictura, and descriptio). Three layers that act like mirrors that reflect - as in kaleidoscope - multitple and repeating interpretations of Revenge, Solidarity and Heroism.

Three major elements of the installation: (1) primary emblematic photograph; (2) secondary photographs and moving text layers; (3) documentary background with digital facsimile and text quotations (including English translations). This interface (3) may become a three sided long bar that can be turned to the picture level, the caption level or the text level. Possibly it can be a triangle module that passes over a long rail whereby a certain moment in time can be choosen.

Principle of the kaleidoscope (kalos = beautiful, eidos = form, skopos = to view) from a scientific instrument invented by David Brewster (1781-1868) in 1816 to a children's toy. Mostly three long, narrow mirrors arranged in a circle, with movable, transparent, colored objects at one end and an eyepiece at the other. Other mirror configurations with different reflection patterns are used. The principle of the kaleidoscope will influence the design of the user's interface, both in a physical and an allegorical way.


Background picture: a mob attack on the head quarters of the Dutch Communist Party (CPN), Felix Meritis building, Keizersgracht, Amsterdam

Caption 1957: "The special edition of the American Life magazine publishes this horrible picture about the body of a bestially tortured, executed and outraged (military) officer." in a publication of the Hungarian Kadar government.

["Counter-revolutionary forces in the October events in Hungary" a series of four pamphlets published by the Hungarian state in 1957]

Caption 1956: (lef picture) "Also spared by the patriots is a small boy, son of one of the security police in the besieged building. Seizing him, the crowd passes him from shoulder to shoulder until he is out of harm's way".

Caption 1956 (right picture) "In unrelenting rage, a woman spits on the body of a colonel of the Red security police who has been beaten to death. Then she glanced up, turned to the photographer and said, "They killed our children."

["Hungary's fight for freedom, by the editors of LIFE, a special 96-page picture report; supplement of Time no 24 1956; this is the Spanish language edition]

This 96 page publication was originally a supplement of issue 24 of Time Magazine, 1956. Editions in other languages were published also, like this one in Spanish. The titel of the English language edition reads" "By the editors of LIFE, Hungary's fight for freedom; a special 96-page picture report". The photographer of both of these pictures is John Sadovy then working for LIFE magazine (he also did fashion photography jobs in the same years among others for Vogue, imagine the difference of experience!). Savody publishes his own detailed account of what happened just before he took this picture, also published in this Time/LIFE special:

Then the rebels brought out a good-looking officer, his face white as chalk. He got five yards, retreated, argued. Then he folded up. It was over with him.
Two AVH men next. Rifle butts pounding. Punching and kicking. Suddenly a shot.
Six young officers came out, one very good-looking. Their shoulder boards were torn off. Quick argument. We're not so bad as you think we are, give us a chance, they were saying. I was three feet from that group. Suddenly one began to fold. They must have been real close to his ribs when they fired. They all went down like corn that had been cut. Very gracefully. And when they were on the ground the rebels were still loading lead into them.
They were all officers in that building. Another came out, running. He saw his friends dead, turned, headed into the crowd. The rebels dragged him out. I had time to take one picture of him and he was down.
Then my nerves went. Tears started to come down my cheeks. I had spent three years in the war, but nothing I saw then could compare with the horror of this.
I could see the impact of bullets on a man's clothes. You could see every bullet. There was not much noise. They were shooting so close that the man's body acted as a silencer. This went on for 40 minutes.
They brought out a woman and a man from the building. Her face was white. She looked left and right at the bodies that were spread all over. Suddenly a man came up and walloped her with a rifle butt. Another pulled her hair, kicked her. She half fell down. They kicked her some more. I thought that's the end of that woman. But in a few minutes she was up, pleading. She said she was not an AVH member. Some of the rebels decided to put her in a bus which was standing nearby, though there were shouts of "No prisoners, no prisoners!" As far as I know she is still alive.
There was still shooting inside the building. Occasionally a small group would come out. One man got as far as the park, which was a long way, but there he was finished. Two more came, one a high-ranking officer. His bleeding body was hung by his feet from a tree and women came up to spit on him.
Two or three men, apparently the top officers, were hung like this.
Then came a last scuffle at the building entrance. They brought out a little boy. They were carrying him on their shoulders. He was 3 or 3 1/2, with a sweet face, looking left and right. There were shouts:
"Don't kill him, save him!" He was the son of one of the AVH officers.
To see this little face after what you'd seen a minute ago made you think you'd had a bad dream and he had wakened you.
Going back through the park, I saw women looking for their men among the bodies on the ground. I sat down on a tree trunk. My knees were beginning to give in, as if I was carrying a weight I couldn't carry any more.]

John Sadovy, "People Were Dropping Like Flies," Life, XLI (November 12, 1956), 40 - 41, Courtesy LIFE Magazine. Copr. 1956 Time Inc.

An almost similar text can be found in the forementioned TimeLIFE speical picture edition. The full text can be found on the web at:

A contact-sheet of John Sadovy of the evenst just before, the shooting of the AVO men, can be found on an educational site in the USA, you can click the picture to see the caption by the editors of this web page...

Caption 1975 (no related text or prictuires on the left hand page): "Beaten to death and hung by his feet on a nearby tree is a Red security police colonel. A woman steps up to spit at him. Photo by John Sadovy — Life"

[Laping, Francis ()/Knight, Hans () "Remember Hungary 1956" (1975) [compiled by Franis Laping edited by Hans Knight; Alpha Publications; De Kalp Pike; p.381; 31 cm]


Caption 2002 (right picture) "Anstellen um Lebensrnittel in Zeiten der Revolution. Budapest, 1956 aption 2002: (left picture) "Die Aufständischen haben ihre Wut an einem AVO-Mann ausgelassen. Budapest, 1956"

[Lessing, Erich ()/Crawford, Alistair () "Vom festhalten der Zeit : Reportage Fotografie 1948-1973 (2002) [text von Alistair Crawford, Übersetzungh ins Deutsche und Bildlegenden von Tradl Lessing, Bildredaktion von Alistair Crawford und Traudl Lessing, Interview mit Erich Lessing von Angelica Bäumer; Verlag Christian Brandstätter; Wien; p.455; 33 cm]

Angelica Bäumer has made an interview with Erich Lessing that can be found in the end of this book, hereby a few quotations that are relevant for the pictures taken in Hungary in 1956:

Demut, Bescheidenheit. Es geht um das Objekt: die Revolution, den Krieg. Die Reportage zeigt jedoch nicht den abstrakten Krieg, sondem den konkreten Menschen, der schießt oder erschossen wird, der lyncht oder befiehlt. Mit solchen Bildern wird durchaus Politik gemacht - von den Medien, aber aucn von den Mächtigen und manchmal sogar von den Ohnmächtigen dieser Welt. Es waren nicht , zuletzt die Fotos der Greueltaten im Vietnamkrieg, die das Gewissen der Amerikaner geweckt und zu einem Druck auf die Regierung geführt haben, diesen sinnlosen Krieg zu beenden. In Österreich i und der Welt wollte sich allerdings kein politisches Gewissen rühren, als die Ungarische Revolution brutal niedergeschlagen wurde, ob- i wohl die humanitäre Hilfe gerade von Seiten Österreichs groß und ^ einmalig war - die politische Reaktion war gleich Null, es sei eine, innere Angelegenheit der Ungarn, hieß es.
„Ich werde bei meinen Vorträgen sehr oft gefragt, me mein Verhältnis ist zu den Grausamkeiten, Toten, Lynchmorden, Gewalttaten, die ich auf Bildern anderer Fotografen sehe und die auch ich fotografiert habe, und me ich während des Fotografierens reagiert habe. Ich bin glücklicherweise, nie dabeigewesen, wenn es geschehen ist, und erst hingekommen, als die Toten schon in den Bäumen gehangen oder am Boden gelegen sind. Ich hätte sicher nicht fotografiert, sondern versucht, die Morde zu verhindern genau wissend, dass das nicht gelingt. Du kannst bei einer wütenden Menge, die Rache nimmt, oder - wie man in einigen meiner Ungarnbilder sieht - wo die Menschen so hasserfüllt sind, dass sie selbst die Toten noch anspucken, da kann man nicht intervenieren. Man hätte mir auch eins i auf den Schädel gehauen oder mich ausgewiesen.
Es ist im Grunde das Prinzip, dass eine Aktion zwar nichts nützen wird, aber sie muss dennoch geschehen. Das ist nicht nur eine Lebenseinstellung, sondern auch die Geschichte jeder Reportage, von der ich behaupte, dass sie sicherlich weder i die allgemeine Bewusstseinslage der Bevölkerung noch der politischen Klasse, die an den Hebeln der Macht sitzt, beeinßusst, weil ganz anderej Faktoren vorhanden sind- Geld, Wirtschaft, Macht Verbindungen. Die Welt ändern kann weder ein momentaner Volksaufstand noch die Intervention eines Fotografen. Aber dennoch muss man das zeigen, weil man licht nur anwesend ist, sondern mit der Kamera dabei. Und bei diesen Reportagen stellt sich immer wieder die Frage, wie weit ist der Reporter unabhängig und die Reportage objektiv, wenn man weiß, dass keine auto ritäre Regierung — und sicher nicht nur der Kommunismus —je einen objektiven Reporter und eine objektive Reportage zugelassen hat. Unser Versuch, objektiv zu berichten, wird zunichte gemacht von den MachtStrukturen und den politischen Ordnungen. Im Grunde ist Objektivität eine Fiktion. Noch dazu wenn man weiß, dass auch die historische Wahrheit immer wieder manipuliert wird oder nicht geglaubt - siehe ~ "• •hrmachtsausstellung."

Also gibt es keine Objektivität?

„Nein", sagt Erich Lessing, „es gibt keine. Es gibt im bildnerischen Bereich keine und auch sonst nicht. Du bist immer selektiv und daher bringst du deine eigene Persönlichkeit ein und das, was du siehst, wird durch deine Abneigung oder Zuneigung gefiltert. Der Journalismus ist nicht objektiv, das wird im Bildjournalismus noch verstärkt una ernartet durch die Bildunterschrift. Ein Bild beginnt erst durch die Unterschrift seinen Sinn und Zweck zu haben, und eine der wesentlichen Überlegungen fördie Gründung von Magnum war ja, dass Robert Capa versucht hat, seine eigenen ^ uierscn/t/tc/i gegen die Bildunterschriften aer ^eauKteure von Life durchzusetzen. Auch das is Objektiv der Kamera ist nicht objektiv, denn der Kurnci ^inin nc-ri Ausschnitt. Man sagt zwar, dass das geschieht, damit die Komposition stimmt, aber die Komposition ist eigentlich nur ein Nebenspiel deines Willens, etwas Bestimmtes zu zeigen, ^o willst du es auch so gut wie möglich komponieren, damit der Beschauer auch versteht, was du meinst.'

[p.449-450; Von der Fotografie und wie er sie sieht]

"Even without privy knowledge I recognise my father as an amateur in his photographs. Perhaps the biggest clue is the safe distance of his framing. 2 He had no professional reasons for risking his life to get a close shot. Generally he frames the entire scene, often including a wide expanse of road in the foreground.
Photographs taken by professional photojournalists play a large part in creating and maintaining memories of historical events. Underwritten by the authority of the media, such images make a strong claim to truth. In the discourses of war photography, we rarely consider images by the unknown, fumbling amateur—the local citizen—for whom possibly much more than his own physical safety is at stake. But vernacular photographs can tell very different stories. There is something more adhoc, more subtle, in the way amateur photographs depict historical events. My father does not organise his pictures in the manner of the professional photographer, but I see the value of his work precisely in the way that it bypasses such technical and conceptual skills. As a result, his photographs pick up details that would have been deemed either too un-noteworthy or too unpalatable to be put into public circulation. This allows a more complex message about the nature of war to slip through.
And always, on the edges of the picture, is the presence of the crowd. What feelings and thoughts flooded the minds of those who gathered to gaze at the dead, I am not sure, but my father’s photographs tell me that they wanted to look [see figure 4]. A dozen pairs of feet circle the dead body of an AVO, confronting its disfigurement, its smell.
The repetition of this motif of the crowd that has gathered to look, and the intense compulsion for visuality, is of particular interest to me as an artist who works with photography. It is significant that my father chose not to take up a gun, but to wander the streets specifically to see and to record."

[Sue Hajdu "Acceptance: on 1956: desire and the unknowable" in Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies Vol. 2, No. 1 January 2005 ISSN: 1449-2490 or a PDF version can be downloaded at:]