Every now and then you come across a powerful photo that demands a gut reaction: outrage, laughter, nausea, arousal. Who among us hasn't shed a tear while rifling through a copy of National Geographic or Art Doll Quarterly?
Art Doll Quarterly
My two favorite photos are "Migrant Mother" and this one.
Then there are pictures that prompt questions where emotions should be. "What am I looking at?" "Is that a Photoshop job?" "Am I ON THE NEW MTV2 SHOW PICTURE PUNK'D????" Here are four baffling historical pictures with amazing true backstories.
Question: Have you ever seen a black Nazi ... wearing a sweater vest? Well you have now. The little boy in the center of the picture above is Hans Massaquoi, one of the few biracial Germans who were born and raised under the Nazi regime. So if you ever feel like you were born in the wrong time and place in history, shut up, because unless you're a black child goose-stepping around with a swastika sewn to your sweater, you have no idea what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I spoke too soon.
Hans was born in Hamburg in 1926, the son of a German nurse and a Liberian law student whose dad happened to be the Liberian consul for Germany. Not long after his birth, Hans' father and grandfather both moved back to Africa, leaving the little boy and his mom to navigate through the ins and outs of living under an Aryan regime on their own. Both the title and the picture above are a little misleading, though, because Hans never actually made it into the Nazi Party, although he tried. In third grade, Hans was so eager to prove that he was a good German that he persuaded his babysitter to sew a swastika onto his sweater. His teacher snapped a picture on the one day Hans wore the emblem, but his mom unstitched it that night, hopefully while defiantly singing whatever the German version of "Edelweiss" is.
Some say the swastika was only worn in rebellion over this sailor suit/baggy sock combo.
The funny thing about being a kid is that you're so entrenched in kidness that you can't see or understand the big picture of the world around you. Even if you're knee-high to pure evil, from your perspective everyone swims around in a hazy pool of authority and rightness. Even though he was the polar opposite of what the Nazi Party was looking for, Hans couldn't see why he couldn't join the party, literally. At age 10, he tried to join the junior division of Hitler Youth for the same reason you and I join the hippie drum circle at the farmer's market:
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0031/Weinrother, C./CC-BY-SA
"... chicken fighting on land ... you know. The fun stuff."
The big question is why wasn't Hans persecuted? In later years, he said he thought it was because blacks were so low in the hierarchy of groups to attack: right after people who couldn't do cartwheels, but before mimes of Chinese descent. Massaquoi actually operated in Nazi society easier than you'd expect. During his teen years, he worked at a government-run job center where an SS officer advised him that he'd be useful to the party once Germany reclaimed their old African colonies. The biggest dangers Hans faced during the war were the bombs from the Allies and getting caught dancing to Nazi-banned swing music.
Pete Harrison & Nick White/Ikon Images/Getty Images
If there's one thing Nazis didn't get, it was the power of dance.
Once the war was over, Hans and his mom moved to America on a student visa, where he was accidentally drafted into the Korean War, which he also survived. By this point, Hans was over the Nazi thing and Americanized his ideology nicely. So naturally he ended up a managing editor of Ebony magazine. Of course he did.
Imagine you're an alien and someone hands you a bag of bones, some hair, and the hollow carcass of a freshly dead human. Then they ask you to recreate your best version of a person. Besides being shocked by the horrific task placed before you, not to mention disappointed at your choice of companions, what would you come up with? I'm guessing a cross between a Picasso portrait and a Picasso portrait painted by a blind elephant.
Or just a regular Picasso portrait.
It's an unlikely scenario, but something similar happened in 1731, when the King of Sweden got an unusual gift from an Algerian chieftain -- a live lion. We don't know if it was the shock of seeing all the pales, Sweden's cold climate, or the fact that this was a very regal yet suicidal lion, but the animal wasn't destined for a long life.
How the lion had the dexterity to tie the noose is lost to history.
Here's where things get screwbally. Up until this point, it was a typical "lion meets Sweden and mysteriously offs himself" story. But the taxidermist on the receiving end of the bag of bones had never seen a lion before. Not in books or works of medieval art or on a flag, not on a lionish gargoyle or in the arms and back of a lionish chair laying around the castle.
Nothing. It was 1731, so the printing press was up and running nicely. The taxidermist couldn't hop over to a monastery and ask if they had some cool lion tapestries or illuminated art of lions farting at each other or anything? He couldn't find a regular-size cat to sketch for reference? Just one? "I got this," he probably said while happily petting his slow-witted but endlessly loyal golden retriever named Bjorn Bjud.
GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Stone/Getty Images
The result of the effort was a lion that looked like the fruit of a dog/cat orgy, a creature so ridiculously off the mark that even visiting hyenas thought it looked stupid. Not helping his "I'm a lion!" cause are the white block teeth, so horrifically misplaced and sturdy that they should be guarding a high security prison cell, nor the steak-tongue of a monster. Between the tongue and the teeth, you almost miss the glassy eyes too narrowly placed together to be condoned by Mother Nature. Poor King Frederick's lion ended up more of a future cautionary tale against GMO animals than the exotic display he was hoping for.
UNLESS you take a step back and look at it from the perspective the taxidermist intended all along.
Suddenly our steaming plate of fur and ignorance just got a little more fierce. His posture looks about right, and that sloppy grin takes on the look of a growl. Even his previously baby-doll-esque eyes look menacing. Which makes the taxidermist the greatest artist of all time. He invented beer goggles and tested them on a stuffed lion. From far away, the lion is magnificent. Up closer, it's an actual dog.