‘The World Aflame’ Uses Color to Make Us See History’s Darker Moments
Marina Amaral and Dan Jones’ new book colorizes early to mid-20th century war photos to draw a parallel between our present and past
British historian Dan Jones and Brazilian artist Marina Amaral open their new book, The World Aflame: A New History of War and Revolution: 1914–1945, with a simple admonishment: “The world is fragile,” they warn. “It takes less than we think to set it aflame.” Jones and Amaral couldn’t have known that they’d be publishing their book at a time when everything seems so brittle. Though perhaps, as they show in their book, nothing in the annals of history was ever as strong as we’re made to believe.
The World Aflame offers 200 newly colorized photos from a 31-year span of global history. Much of the book focuses on the first and second World Wars, but it also includes images from the civil war in Ireland, the colonial war in Morocco, and the Russian revolutions among other subjects. Alongside the pictures are small essays, explanations that help bring the old histories into current contexts. To witness these moments reanimated is to experience emotional vertigo, to understand that a photograph is not a tableau — it’s simply a heartbeat from a day gone by.
“The most powerful thing that colorization can do is to break the barrier that exists between past and present,” Amaral tells me, “making it possible for us to connect in a much deeper way with the people and historical events portrayed.”
The emotional vertigo I experienced as a reader and viewer of Amaral and Jones’ book pales in comparison to the emotional work of colorization itself. According to Amaral, getting close to the people she is colorizing is a part of the process. “It is not easy to work on certain photos because I get very close to the subject during the colorization process,” she says. “I really don’t think there is a way to create an emotional distance because I spend hours working on the same image.”
“Colorization can break the barrier that…