Breathing stories to survive: ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ Exhibition by August Sanders

Importance of storytelling seen in the photo series “People of The Twentieth Century” by August Sanders.

With stories, we evolved as humans and grew as children. We understood some of these stories, and as for the others, we nodded, believing we did. Millions of little anecdotes have been running alongside us as long as we have. Amidst all the floating ideas and words, there are some stories that made us. These stories obviously came in a variety of shapes and forms. But to those who understand art as they believe art understands them, Art is to be human.


Throughout history, there have been many accounts of people, places and events recorded and kept dear to our hearts. To understand where we are now, we need to understand where we came from. Perhaps that is the reason why we are so obsessed with existential questions, even though we’ve never been able to settle on an answer. Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ is one way to live. But thinking would be incomplete if we had no stories or ideas to think about. And that’s when Art comes into the picture. More specifically, the photo series ‘People of The Twentieth Century’ by August Sanders (exhibiting at National Museum Cardiff, from 26 October 2019 to 1 March 2020).


It’s an influential project recording German people of varied classes and professions during the mid-1920s and through WWII. This project tells a story of all humankind without isolating a group discriminated by society. Negatives of people held captive by Nazis were smuggled out of prison to give families comfort that they were still alive. Art allows instances like these to live on forever, for us to never forget the pain endured and injustice suffered. ‘Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age,’ said August Sander. Memorabilia like these are different for everyone but are all connected to us in the same ways, because we understand the basic emotions despite our situational differences.


Storytelling in art is important because it represents and reflects the journey we’ve lived.

Stories of others can be a precautionary tale or inspiration depending on the circumstances. Nonetheless, it allows us to connect to those that have come and gone. With the compilation of 619 photographs in the series ‘People of The Twentieth Century,’ Sanders recorded farmers, workers, women, occupations, artists, the big city and the last people. These people have lived on beyond their lifetime, resonating with us in many personal ways. Sanders is just one of many who has given us a window to time travel. Any form of expression or art that’s honest, tells a story which breathes.


Storytelling in art is important because it gives a healing space for the hurt.

Your stories through art can be as explicit as you would like them to be. Art welcomes traumas and pain, celebrating and accepting them. The honest portrayal of people in Sander’s project allows us to see all our differences and similarities plainly. It doesn’t glorify or over complicate these people and sometimes that is relieving to understand. It’s an interesting experience looking at a person objectively, making you wonder how you would be perceived. With just a change in perspective, we can reflect on ourselves without the clutter of our thoughts. The process of some artwork can provide us with help and others can deliver us to ask for help. Expressing emotions vocally can be difficult and nerve-wracking but narrative art of all forms can be therapeutic.



Storytelling in art is important because it allows an expression to be understood.

As kids, our visual sense is the first through which we understand our world. Before we could understand sequenced language or intricate thought processes, we could comprehend the world before our infant eyes.  Storytelling in art allows you to share a specific experience through a method that is universal to all. All anyone ever wants is to be looked at kindly with an expression of understanding. And art allows this despite our many differences, be it culture or class. Our human experiences overlap more often than we like to admit. Many have and will go through what we are going through now. These experiences, felt universally but endured by individuals as their own, are important for us to understand each other and to develop a sense of unity.

Breathing stories to survive might be a very specific way of living and might not resonate to most. But because it does to some of us, it’s still important.

More information on ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition can be found at: