Photo Essays

Germans Posing with Polar Bears in Vintage Photos

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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection (all images courtesy Jean-Marie Donat)

Try not to crack a smile at the sight of a polar bear crashing human picnics, photo-bombing social soirées, and seemingly just trying to fit in. That’s the challenge when perusing TeddyBär, a new photo book featuring dozens of bizarre photographs taken in Germany between the 1920s and ’60s featuring improbable cameos by a man in a bear costume and collected by French editor Jean-Marie Donat.

Unfortunately, the history behind the bear costume in many of the images is darker than you’d expect. It was created by the German stuffed animal company Steiff as a mascot for Fanta, the carbonated soda invented in Germany during World War II to make up for the shortage of Coca-Cola. Look a bit closer and you’ll see Nazi insignia and swastikas on the uniforms of soldiers linking arms with the bear and the dress of a smiling girl leaning in for a hug. The polar bear comes to symbolize the German desire to pretend things were normal — to enjoy a fizzy drink, pose for a silly photo with a furry friend — and ignore the fact that grizzly death was swirling all around.

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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jeann-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jeann-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection
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An image from Jean-Marie Donat’s collection

Jean-Marie Donat’s TeddyBär series is currently on view at Les Rencontres de la Photographie at Arles 2015, through September 20.

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