During the early days, war photography was limited to catching static shots of war or military related scenes that were staged—a common theme was often one of uniformed officers and men stood or sat around in various poses, some of whom were reading newspapers, smoking pipes, drinking and so on. They had to stand motionless—often for minutes at a time in poor lighting—because the old fashion daguerreotype photography required a lengthy exposure time to capture the impression on the silver coated copper plates. In this sense the art of photography and portraiture in those days shared certain similarities.
This, rather contrived, method of capturing the battlefield scene especially during the Crimean War was pioneered during the reign of Queen Victoria by a man called Robert Fenton, who is considered one of the first genuine war photographers. His kind of staged photography, although not overly realistic, was fashionable; and to be fair, technological limitations made it nigh on impossible to capture the dynamic motion of battle. Eventually though, the glaringly obvious became difficult to ignore—corpses don’t move. More grisly pictures began to emerge from the American Civil War of the carnage of battle. Not very popular with politicians and generals, it was at least a more authentic depiction of war. The American press may have had more license to print this kind of material than other countries whose establishments exercised tighter control.
The First World War posed a particular problem for the military because personal, relatively easy to use, cameras were becoming popular among the men and there was no real limit to what they could shoot. The cameras were banned in an attempt to avoid the demoralising effect of shocking photos making their way into the public domain.
The Second World War saw the emergence of Robert Capa, considered the greatest of all war photographers, who captivated the general public with iconic black and white images from the Spanish Civil War and WWII. He framed some of the most intense scenes from the ferocious battle of Omaha Beach as the allies poured out of the amphibious landing vehicles into withering machine gunfire. The legendary photographer was killed by a landmine in the Indo China conflict.
It goes without saying that war photography is a risky and harrowing business. Those who pursue this precarious vocation for long enough may very well find themselves engaged in the horrible ethical dilemma that comes with the territory—how to reconcile the mechanical act of photographing the very worst of human suffering rather than instinctively offering the hand of friendship. This is a haunting fact of life for photographers in the field who may be forced to relive the moment many times over and justify it to themselves and others who invariably raise the issue. The Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Kevin Carter, shooting in South Africa during the Apartheid era, captured the especially cruel and horrifying punishment known as necklacing; when a burning tyre is placed around the neck of a victim. When he was asked to stop shooting he said he would if they stopped the ordeal. They refused. This is an instance when the photographer at least tried to intervene. Often they have to steel them self to the task by holding to the purpose that they are bringing home the visceral horrors of war to people who may harbour fanciful or romantic notions of what is involved. And the effect of a shockingly dramatic photograph on public opinion cannot ever be over emphasised—think of the infamous picture taken by Nick Ut of the little, naked Vietnamese girl screaming in terror and pain as the napalm from a recently exploded bomb melts off her skin…
These are the epoch changing pictures that photojournalists literally die for, but there are others in the new digital snap-shot age where photography is ubiquitous which are not particularly impressive in themselves, but rather for the manner of their taking: João Silva, working for The New York Times and embedded with an American unit in Afghanistan, took some poorly framed pictures of soldiers with metal detectors looking for mines. The photos were innocuous and amateurish except when you discover that moments before, João had stepped on a landmine and lost both his legs yet he still, almost robotically, kept shooting what he could of the scene. Not only that, he wants prosthetic legs that allow him to continue doing what he can’t seem to quit.
But the job of bringing home the dark side in all its gory detail doesn’t necessary make one the best dinner guest, as one eminent photographer told the Guardian in an interview. And there is probably no more poignant reminder of the trauma of being a war photographer than the final words of Kevin Carter in a suicide note he left for the world: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”
Photo by MichaelGaida, CC0 1.0
Editor’s Note – The article’s author Tim Aldiss writes for Spectrum Photographic – professional photographic & giclée printing.