War Photography in the Twentieth Century: A Short Critical History
Originally published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Photography, 2005.
The twentieth century is unarguably the bloodiest century in human history, with death tolls from politically motivated conflicts between 175 and 200 million worldwide. Over the course of the century, the nature of war blurred and then wrecked older distinctions between battlefield and city, soldier and civilian, peacetime and wartime, civilization and barbarism. Technologically advanced weapons of incalculably great destructive force abetted (and did not eclipse) older forms of killing, while science, industry and bureaucratic management came to define “modern” warfare. While the severity of war in the 20th century had profound cultural and indeed, epistemic reach, at the same time war became foundational to the economies of industrially advanced states, and central to political ideologies of all stripes.
A critical examination of war photography demands that we accept war photographs as mediated records and recorded mediations in equal measure, by turns repositories of information and vaults of testimony, aesthetic productions that alternately magnify and diffuse acts of war, dramatize and deflect them. A critical approach demands that we register the complexity of the mandates to make photographs of war, and that we not reduce war photographs to overdetermined messages, illustrated propaganda or self-reconciled rhetoric—much as these are in evidence—or the opposite, innocent guides through suffering. As aspects of visual culture, photographs of war are imperfect analogues of their constitutive elements: the physical world of war itself, individual photographers' perceptions, and the institutional and discursive practices in which photographs are enmeshed from their origin, and on which they depend for their meanings. A critical examination demands at least three discrete, simultaneous lines of inquiry: first, to determine what photographs were actually made of any given war, by whom and under what circumstances; second, to specify which of these were published and circulated contemporaneously, and in what forms; third, to delineate the ways that photographs subsequently appeared or disappeared from public view, in what contexts and with what impact.
Building on improvements in camera technologies and the development of the halftone reproduction process, by the turn of the 20th century photography was ascendant as a journalistic aid, illustrating news of the Spanish American War (1898), the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and other wars of empire. The sustained use of photographs as visual media began in earnest during the First World War (1914-1918), with photography cautiously but concertedly integrated into the war effort, both for military purposes and to discipline public opinion. From the outset, Allied military officials considered a free press a security risk, and photographs of the war were subject to direct military censorship. Civilian journalists, including photographers, were banned from the Western Front, the pivotal conflict area, and official photographers were exceedingly few: the British government, for example, accredited only two between 1916-1918, Ernest Brooks and John Warwick Brooke.
Nonetheless, several illustrated publications brought photographs of the conflict to the public more or less as it happened: in Britain the Daily Mirror, The Illustrated London News, The Sphere, The Daily Graphic, and The War Illustrated; in France Excelsior, Le Miroir and L’Illustration; in the United States The New York Times Mid-Week Pictorial, Collier’s Weekly, Leslie’s Weekly; in Germany Das Illstrierte Blatt, the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and the Illustrierte Kriegs-Zeitung. The majority of pictures in these publications show war materiel, the landscape of the battlefields, damaged property and ruins, troop formations, posed and candid images of soldiers and officers at rest, and the provision of medical care. Illustrated battlefield tourguides appeared as early as 1916 in virtually every European country. The tasks with which these photographs were charged have remained central imperatives of war photography ever since: to solicit public support without unduly registering war’s contradictions, and to validate the state’s insistent appeal to duty and service while mitigating war’s ugliness.
Altogether, comparatively few of the illustrated periodicals’ photographs depict the staggering human costs of a war that “used up words,” in Henry James’ phrase, or its signature elements: the waves of soldiers going “over the top” only to be mowed down by automatic weapons, the extensive use of poison gasses, the heavy toll of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other diseases, and the psychological stress of long contests of attrition and endurance in stinking, pestilence ridden trenches. At the battles of Passchendaele in 1917 and Arras in 1918, the official Canadian photographer, William Rider-Rider photographed lone soldiers in nondescript landscapes, suggesting the arduousness, if not the gruesomeness of their experience. At the battle of the Somme, the most intensively photographed battle of the war, Brooks and the British Royal Engineers photographed the forward trench preparations, the great mine explosions prior to the initial assault on July 1, 1916, and the first waves of troops going forward. Their photographs, however, fail to depict what was eventually recognized as one of the worst debacles of the war: 60,000 dead in first day and 30,000 in the first half hour alone, and 1.3 million by October, 1916. Likewise, in Collier’s Photographic History of the European War, a lavish book of photographs published in 1917 to rally American public support as the U.S. entered the conflict, only 9 of 376 photographs show dead soldiers in any form, most of these distanced views of corpses in large battlefield expanses. Viewers of this book would not guess the war’s unprecedented carnage, with combined military casualties by 1918 totaling more than 37 million, some 57% of all mobilized forces.
Exceptions to the omissions in official photography of the war do exist, most importantly the photographs of anonymous officers and soldiers who carried private cameras despite the press prohibitions, for example, British Private F.A. Fyfe, French soldier Marcel Felser, Australian Captain Charles Bean, who photographed the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli, and the soldiers in the London Rifle Brigade stationed near Armentières, France, who photographed the December 1914 Christmas truce in which soldiers from both sides fraternized in no man’s land. A once influential, now obscure reclaiming of the war’s photographs is Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 anti-war invective, Krieg dem Krieg! (War against War!), presenting nearly 200 photographs from German archives, many previously censored by the military. In sequences of careful pictorial juxtapositions and short, impassioned texts, the book takes the viewer on a relentless tour of slaughter and ruin, culminating in a series of close-ups of veterans’ horrific facial wounds.
The principal uses of photography during the Second World War issued from those of First World War, supplemented by an expanded practice of the photo-reporter developed in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), particularly in the work of the Hungarian-born American photographer, Robert Capa, and the Polish-born photographer, David Seymour (“Chim”). The Second World War, which effectively began with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, followed by Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, engulfed the planet by its conclusion in 1945, comprising divers theatres of conflict across the globe and a vast spectrum of participants. On all sides the conflict saw a massively expanded official use of photography, with photographers thoroughly harnessed to the prosecution of the war, both as a part of the armed forces themselves and as civilians integrated into the military. As disseminated in newspapers and especially the picture magazines that had proliferated in the interwar years, photographs became a primary and uniquely powerful form of media widely recognized as crucial to the war effort. “Fundamentally,” stated the American General Dwight D. Eisenhower “public opinion wins wars.” Building on innovations in design and graphic arts in the interwar period, particularly in Germany, by the outbreak of the war the picture magazines had developed a sophisticated use of the visual page that proved highly effective as public relations—dynamic layouts, active narrative associations between pictures of varying types and sizes, potent picture-text combinations, an enticing interplay of visual sequences, montages and symbols. Neither the term “news” nor “propaganda” on its own quite describes the visual experience of the war in the pages of the French Vu, Regards, and Paris-Soir, the British Picture Post, Match and the Illustrated London News, the American Life and Look, and the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and the Illustrierte Beobachter: propaganda infused with the timeliness and urgency of news, and news girded by propaganda’s certainty and sense of destiny.
Life magazine, to consider one example, had by the 1941 American entry into the war arrived at a potent combination of an oversized format, a lively layout, an abundant use of pictures, and an upbeat integration of advertising, feature stories and news—all war news having been cleared by military censors. Within the picture magazine idiom, Life’s photographic presentation of the war effectively adapted the form of empathic “documentary” photography ascendant in the 1930s (associated in the U.S. with government sponsored photography of the Great Depression by the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration), and so succeeded in positioning sacrifice and tribulation within the rhetoric of moral activism on the part of the American state. Life’s photographs glamorized the war partly by rendering it hale, vital and seductive—following the lead of the influential Nazi propaganda magazine, Signal—and partly by harnessing the prestige of the emergent practice of concerned photojournalism to the goals of Allied war effort. Typically Life’s photographic spreads on the war included a modicum of ground-level combat photographs (often shot at middle distance), together with candid photographs of soldiers, officers and periodically impacted civilians, healthy doses of aerial pictures, battle landscapes and seascapes, maps, and occasionally drawings and pictures of scale models of battle. The effectiveness of this approach required comparatively limited photographic coverage of the war: only about 10% of a typical weekly edition offered reportorial photographs of the war in any form, while another 15% of the magazine referred to the war in advertisements. Altogether, Life’s portrayal of the war was more a matter of ethos than information: it exuded the war more than “covered” it, and so naturalized its presence in American life.
In subsequent decades, much of the material originally published in Life was reorganized and republished. Stripping the photographs of the idiom of the periodical, and securing their place as the images of the victors, later books present more concentrated (and so seemingly more exhaustive) representation of the war, and particularly of battle—from the invasion of Poland and the occupation of Europe to the war in the North African desert, the Russian front, the great battles in the Pacific, the invasion of Normandy, and the liberation of Europe from the west and the east. The recombinant archive of World War II pictures helped to fix the central conceits of combat photography: the viewer, distanced in place and time from the fighting, is brought vicariously into the contingencies of battle, given to feel its excitement but not quite its danger, and offered valor as the face of justice. In time the aggregation of recirculated ex-magazine photographs have become nearly co-extensive with the image of the war itself: what began as publicity has been transformed into popular memory.
Subsequent publications also emphasized the auteurship of individual Second World War photographers. The American photographer, W. Eugene Smith epitomizes the figure of the World War II photographer as brave humanist. While other accomplished photographers in the European and Pacific theaters made clear, empathic records of events (notably the British photographers Burt Hardy, Bill Brandt and George Rodger; the Americans Lee Miller, Constance Stuart Larrabee, George Strock, Peter Stackpole and Carl Mydans), Smith attempted, in his own words, “to call out as teacher and surgeon and entertainer” an “indictment of war.” In his photographs at sea and at the Pacific battles on Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Tinian and Okinawa, where he was seriously wounded, Smith undertakes a disciplined observational practice that resolves bitter, highly geographically focused battles into muscular statements, and that assiduously locates moments of tenderness in the midst of brutality. A master of design, he renders appallingly bloody events with a certain demanding elegance, unleashing the sensory totality of battle under the sign of the symphonic.
By contrast, Robert Capa may be credited with an alternate form of engaged war photography. Capa began his career during the Spanish Civil War as a partisan freelancer, a roaming photographer working to publicize the Loyalist resistance to fascism. Publishing in Vu, Life and other periodicals, Capa became famous for his bravery and élan, and his photographs for their frankness and passion. In perhaps the most famous war photograph in history, Capa’s 1936 “The Falling Soldier,” shows a Spanish Republican militiaman, Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death, falling backward from the impact of a bullet at Cerro Muriano on the Córdoba front. Debate over the picture’s authenticity has long accompanied its notoriety (largely a baseless debate: soldiers agreeing to stage their own deaths as a publicity stunt would have been patently stupid and self-defeating), but the photograph’s deeper accomplishment is the way it handles death as both fact and enigma. If Capa’s pictures as they appeared during his lifetime reveal him to be a trenchant spot news photographer, the volumes of his work published since his death in 1954 reveal him to be a photographer of remarkable depth. These later books are not honorific compilations, but essential to an understanding of Capa’s vision in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Normandy invasion, France and Belgium during the Second World War, later in Israel, and in Indochina. Specifically, they show the ways that Capa in fact resists the idiom of the totemic, iconic image, instead picturing war as an encompassing but disaggregated phenomenon, an opaque commitment spread between soldier and civilian, a destructive force to be approached multiple times, in multiple passes. His photographs place the viewer “beside war,” in John Steinbeck’s able phrase, registering and testing its emotional reality.
On all fronts the Second World War legitimated the targeting of civilians and the ruination of cities to an unprecedented degree, and indeed, victory came to depend on the destruction of civilian life. The empathic photoreportorial mode lent itself naturally to a number of projects concentrating on the effect of the fighting on civilian populations, undeniably compassionate projects that at the same time fall short of exposing the universal lies about civilian casualties: namely that the targeting of civilians is always perpetrated as the crime of the “other” side, and that such damage is not central to military objectives. In August, 1944 Life published pictures by the German-born American photographer, Alfred Eisenstadt on the plight of Jewish refugees, and in October, 1945 published Leonard McComb’s sympathetic photographs of displaced Germans. The Swiss photographer, Werner Bischof extensively photographed postwar Germany for European and American magazines, while the American photographer, John Vachon photographed postwar Poland under the sponsorship of the United Nations. The American photographer, Thérèse Bonney’s 1940 work, War Comes to the People: The First Camera Record Ever Made of the Death of Peace remains an inventive, ambitious look at the civilian effort to cope with the war in Finland and France (that is, on both sides of the Allied-Axis split, a divide the book does not recognize), while her 1943 book on orphans and children refugees, Europe’s Children anticipates David Seymour’s 1949 Children of Europe. Seymour, joining with Capa, Rodger and the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, founded Magnum in 1947, which remains the most prestigious photographic agency dedicated to humanistic reportage that treats war and peace as a single, interdependent subject.
Soviet photographers of the Second World War have been considerably less well known outside of the former Soviet Union. The important work of photographers on the grueling battlefields of the Russian front was virtually unpublished in the West until after the Cold War: Dmitri Baltermants, Mikhail Trakhman, Max Alpert, Galina Sankova, Olga Lander, Emanuel Evzerikhin, Mark Markov-Grinberg, as well as Boris Kudoyarov’s pictures of the siege of Leningrad, and Georgi Zelma’s of Stalingrad. Most of these photographers remain obscure in the west, with the exception of the Russian-Jewish photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, whose photograph of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag on August 30, 1945 became the leading symbol of Soviet victory. Khaldei conceived and deliberately staged his picture on the model of American photographer, Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945 (itself not a singular picture innocently found). Khaldei’s conception of photographic truth as a matter of conviction before documentary “fact” is the direct inheritance of the history of photography in Russia and the vigorous debates on photography in the years following the revolution; at the end of the 20th century it found itself compatible with Western notions of artistic inventiveness, and so conducive to Khaldei’s canonization as a war artiste, a photographer whose subject happens to be war but whose images are deemed to have “aesthetic surplus,” in the words of the artist and critic, Martha Rosler.
Photographs of atrocity remain one of the central and most difficult bodies of Second World War photography—pictures that announce abysses to the point of “negative epiphany,” in Susan Sontag’s pithy phrase. The prototypical examples of atrocity remain the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and the Shoah, the murder of some six million European Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators in various countries. Photography has brought these atrocities to partial legibility, proffering visual testimony that is as incomplete and at times as indeterminate as it is direct and incontrovertible—in effect, testimony that has prevailed against the efforts of governments, including the American and the Nazi governments, to prevent the creation of pictorial evidence of their crimes, and to repress and to bowdlerize this evidence when it does appear.
Initial media coverage in the American press of Hiroshima and Nagasaki rendered the use of the atomic bomb continuous with other acts of war, presenting it as a scientific and military triumph, withholding not only images of obliteration, but initially even distant views of the explosions. The image of the bomb’s euphemistically named “mushroom cloud” later became an emblem of destructiveness triumphant (an image elaborated in subsequent decades of nuclear testing), quite unlike the views made from below by Toshio Fukada in Hiroshima some 20 minutes after the bomb exploded. Yosuke Yamahata’s photographs of Nagasaki made on August 10th, 1945, the day after the bombing, depict a cityscape so devastated that it is at once utterly plain and inscrutable, an accusatory ruin at the very limits of representation. By contrast, the American photographer, Wayne Miller, a member of Edward Steichen’s U.S. Navy photographic unit, photographed victims of the Hiroshima bomb in September 1945, making dramatically lit compositions whose figures are introspective but not visibly distraught, victims who are cared for, nursed, looked after—who abide under the watchful gaze of now compassionate perpetrators. A similarly contemplative approach, but without the sanguine political implications, is evident in Hiroshima-Nagasaki ’61, by the Japanese photographers, Shomei Tomatsu and Ken Domon, the latter also a member of the sophisticated collaborative that produced the powerful photographic elegy, document 1961.
The discrepancy between seeing and knowing also figures as a key trope of the photography of the destruction of European Jewry. Photography of the ghetto at Warsaw, forming perhaps the most extensive pictorial archive of any of the multiple events that comprise the Shoah, comes from several sources. Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry made photographs and films of the ghetto falsely depicting it as a thriving, habitable place, while pictures of ill, starving Jews in the ghetto’s streets, made under the auspices of military press units, were published in popular magazines. The pictures of Jewish misery on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto provide a clear example of the ways that the meanings of war photographs change depending on the discourse in which they are embedded: Nazi propaganda construed such pictures as evidence of the degradation and subhumanity of Jews, while subsequent generations see in them the effects of Nazi brutality. Decades after the war, collections of pictures of the Warsaw Ghetto by discrete Nazi soldiers such as Heinrich Jöst and Willy Georg have come to light, as well as by anonymous German soldiers, in each case begging the question of how Nazi eyes structured and encoded the image of what and how Jewish victims suffered.
Virtually unique in the history of 20th century war photography is the work of the Polish-Jewish artist and photographer, Mendel Grossman, who intensively photographed the prison enclave for Jews in Lodz as a captive between 1940 and 1944 (a more protracted but analogous case might be the South African photographer, Peter Magubane’s work from the 1950s-1990s in resistance to the South African apartheid regime). Employed by the ghetto administration and undertaking a documentary project on his own initiative, Grossman photographed the daily labors of Jewish self help—from cottage industries to the hauling of excrement and the distribution of food. Surveilling his captors, he clandestinely photographed German troop movements and executions. In the ghetto’s morgue he secretly photographed the corpses of the dead in the hope of aiding in their identification; in the streets and at the gates of the ghetto he photographed the continual deportations of those condemned to the death camps of Kulmhof and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Grossman’s project survived the war intact, hidden in a wall in his apartment (Grossman himself died in a death march from Lodz in 1944), and was transported to Palestine, only to be largely destroyed in the Israeli war of independence in 1948.
Virtually no photographs exist of any of the six death camps in operation (Auschwitz-Birkenau , Belzec, Kulmhof, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka). The Auschwitz Album, a collection of pictures made by an unknown German officer during the “selection” process on the Birkenau train platform, remains a notable exception. On the other hand, several collections of photographs made during the 1941 Nazi execution campaigns across the western parts of the Soviet Union reveal not only the extent to which ordinary German soldiers (not the SS alone) participated in atrocities, but also the desire of Nazis, despite official prohibitions, informally to represent their crimes, and sometimes to use photography to humiliate victims. The Wehrmacht photographs prefigure cases in subsequent wars in which pictures of war crimes were made gratuitously and not intentionally as indictment. Two telling later examples in this connection are the pictures by the American photographer, Ron Haeberlee just prior to the massacre of 347 innocents by American troops in the Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968, and the photographs made by occupying U.S. soldiers while torturing detainees in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib in 2003. In the first case, the photographs act as a threshold into the (imagined) confluence of individual madness and official prerogative, and in the second case, as tokens of imbecilic torturers’ perceived impunity.
For many viewers, the photography of atrocity stands as the paradigmatic example of war photography that indicts war itself. Specifically, the photography of the atomic bomb and Nazi genocide is understood to stand not just for the mass murder of targeted victims, but for distinctly 20th century ambitions in warfare—the effort to kill “scientifically,” and the effort to kill totally, not just to kill but to kill off, not just to defeat but to annihilate. Still, the cultural logic that endows photography with the capacity to confirm evil infrequently looks to photography to irrupt (much less to lead) political imagination. The photography of atrocity generally testifies retrospectively, often as a contest between metonym and symbol, and only occasionally in an effort to detail crimes against humanity, crimes considered “necessary” to look at. Which corpses represent “humanity” is, of course, not a question photographs answer. The German photographer, Armin T. Wegner’s photographs of Armenians murdered during the First World War, or the thousands of remorseless mug shots made of condemned Cambodians just prior to their murders in the Tuol Sleng prison between 1975-1979, or the French photographer, Gilles Peress’ photographs of the fratricide in Bosnia in his 1994 book, Farewell to Bosnia and in Rwanda in his 1994 book, The Silence, all show a choice of victim, but all depend on a solvency of political discourse to reveal the genocidal crime they show.
The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which formed the chassis of global geopolitics from 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and fuelled proxy wars on every continent, ensured steady work for photographers drawn to conflict areas, and the creation of a veritable industry of war imagery. The war in Korea (1950-1953) was extensively photographed by civilians and photographers attached to the American military, though publication was limited from the beginning, and severely so after the first six months. The limited visibility of the war meant suppressed recognition of its signal complications, many of which became central to the wars of subsequent decades in Southeast Asia, Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq: the ill-preparedness of U.S. troops, the crimes of armies allied with and under the guidance of the U.S., the struggle of soldiers to distinguish civilians from enemy combatants, and extent of the death and carnage visited upon civilians. The upshot was a distancing effect well suited to the emergent ideology of U.S. postwar hegemony: “Mr. Public,” wrote US Camera in 1951 with unselfconscious prescience, “likes to sit back in his chair and have things done for him without having to expend more than a minimum of energy and that, minus danger.” At the same time, the comfortable remoteness of the war was set off against a decidedly more psychological portrayal of combat in the pictures that did appear, in the work of Max Desfor, Carl Mydans, Bert Hardy (whose pictures of South Korean war crimes were explicitly censored), and especially the American photographer, David Douglas Duncan. Duncan’s photographs in Life, U.S. Camera and particularly his 1951 book, This Is War! established him as the prototypical post World War II combat photographer, at once perceptive and macho, independent-minded and identified with (if not implicated in) the prerogatives of the military. This Is War!, subtitled, A Photo-Narrative in Three Parts, also remains a masterpiece of visual sequencing, a sophisticated statement of the differences between linguistic and visual narrative, and of the complexities of photographic truth-telling.
The two decades of bitter conflict in Vietnam—the war against the French (1946-1954) and then the Americans (1959-1975)—prompted the maturation of “concerned” war photography, and the heightening of its internal contradictions. Unique in the history of twentieth century wars, the American government not only welcomed but actively facilitated photography to a great extent. In a climate of official openness and permissiveness, freelance photographers from around the world descended on the country to work virtually at will. War photographs accordingly became commodities as they had not been before. The result was the proliferation of a range of war photographs, from dispassionate documents of military operations to predatory, voyeuristic images of misery, to incisive photojournalism and introspective, critical pictures that become touchstones for the cultural upheaval that eventually accompanied the war.
At the same time, photographs for the first time took their place in the mist of extensive television coverage. On balance, photography accounted for a comparatively small part of the public’s contemporaneous exposure to the Indochinese war, notwithstanding the great volume of photographs made. (Life’s photographic coverage of the war was particularly paltry at the height of the war between 1967 and 1971, censoring the war’s escalating toll and its unpopularity in favor of the illusion of a morally untroubled good life occasionally beset by news from afar.) War photography in the age of television also became synoptic, a distillation of the river of television pictures that followed the conflict as it progressed from the ineffectual American attempt to win Vietnamese “hearts and minds,” to increasing American aggression, and ultimately the obscenity of blind killing on the pretext, as the historian Jorge Lewinski observes, that the communist evil was worse than napalm.
A heightened sense of the throes of combat was the major topos of the war’s photography, with many photographers astutely portraying the misery, the pain and the confusion of jungle and city warfare, notably the American photographers, Catherine Leroy, Robert J. Ellison and Oliver Noonan; the French photographers, Henri Huet, Christine Spengler and Gilles Caron; the Japanese photographer, Kyoichi Sawada; and the Singaporian photographer, Terrence Khoo. David Douglas Duncan used Vietnam to elaborate his lyrical and hawkish vision of the combat experience, while the British photographers, Larry Burrows, Donald McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths articulated different degrees of liberal response. Reflecting a personal shift from support of the war to disillusionment before his 1971 death in combat, Burrows’ photographs are simultaneously unsentimental and profoundly elegiac—many exploiting a distinctly monochromatic use of color, dominated by grayish greens and pale browns—showing a war made equally of determination and grief. McCullin’s black and white photographs, by contrast, relentlessly locate the meaning of the war in the human body itself—pained, mangled, deranged with suffering—and so wrest the chief symbol of war from the grip of flags, explosions and guns. McCullin’s 1974 book, Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? collects photographs from Vietnam and other conflicts, rendering distinct victims and distinct conflicts as matter of undifferentiated agony (an approach later repeated in James Nachtwey’s 1989 Deeds of War, and particularly his 1999 globetrotting cenotaph, Inferno.) Jones Griffiths, by contrast, offers a relentless critique of the war in his 1971 book, Vietnam Inc, which astutely moves the viewer between the military and civilian realms of loss, educating the viewer without indulging a Western-centric bias.
Prototypical cases of photographs taken for metonyms of the entire war are the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs by Vietnamese-born photographer, Nick Ut, who photographed a naked Phan Thi Kim screaming in pain with other children on a highway, after her home was struck by napalm on June 8, 1972, and by the American photographer, Eddie Adams, who photographed Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese National Police and head of the South Vietnamese Central Intelligence Organization, executing Bay Hop, a captured Viet Cong soldier, on February 1st, 1968 in Saigon. In Adams’ photograph, we see Loan firing a bullet point blank into Hop’s head; Hop, wincing, appears to be receiving the bullet, though has not yet collapsed in death. The photograph presents us not with a story but only a terse, unsparing, intensely violent ending—if not as graphically violent an ending as shown by the television footage of the same incident. For many viewers, the picture was also climactic, proclaiming the horror and immorality of the war, signifying its barbarity and its incoherence. That the image should have functioned—or more properly, performed—in this way is typically credited to the photograph, but is due more properly to the discourses in which the photograph found itself.
A fuller account of this discourse, as offered for example by the cultural anthropologist, David D. Perlmutter, would attempt to explain the specific context in which the picture was made, namely the 1968 Tet offensive by the Communist North Vietnamese, which already represented a watershed in American public debate on the war, and, importantly, coincided with peak levels of U.S. mortalities. Further, it would elaborate the suppression of the identity of both men, and how this suppression aided the image’s iconicity. It would investigate the ways that the picture’s meanings change with other information appended to it, and indeed, how it might have been used to support the war effort.
If it is rare that even popularly known war photographs such as Adams’ receive careful attention to the constructedness of their meanings, the photography of the war in Indochina as disseminated in subsequent decades has expanded and challenged the original image of the war. Particularly noteworthy is the publication of work by North Vietnamese photographers, including Luong Nghia Dung, Nguyen Dinh Uu, Mai Nam, Le Minh Truong, Duong Tranh Phong, Dinh Dang Dinh and many others. Originally made to depict the resilience and ingenuity of the Vietnamese nationalist/communist resistance (both in print and even in the jungle, where pictures were hung from trees along the Ho Chi Minh trail), the photographs humanize the North Vietnamese in ways unseen during the war itself (with the exception of the French photographer, Marc Riboud’s palliative 1970 book, The Face of North Vietnam), showing their resilience in the face of Western aggression that claimed more than 3.5 million Vietnamese lives from 1946-1975. The North Vietnamese photographs also illuminate the priorities of most non-Vietnamese photographers in showing the war, namely to endorse tacitly the morality of the war, if not its impact or its tactics.
The numerous regional conflicts across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South and Central America from the 1960s through the beginning of the 21st century have drawn plentiful, if uneven coverage by professional war photographers, while coverage of American wars has veered from World War I levels of censorship (the 1991 Gulf War) to World War II style “embedded” reporting (Iraq, 2003). “Professional” war photography has come largely to consist of conventionalized visual figurations using the stock tropes of combat developed over the previous century: smoke and debris, blasted architecture, menacing weapons, clamoring action, contorted faces, sometimes mutilated bodies. The most venal of this imagery is something close to a mimicry of pain: by the inverted logic of news under the sign of entertainment, the more implausible the photograph, the more “authentic” its depiction. Such a climate encourages photographers to treat war photography as bounty hunting, and indeed, encourages acts of war themselves, as combatants play to the camera, certain that the photographs will appear in print and online. Often such “professional” coverage in Africa, South America and Asia unwittingly rehearses older, resilient stereotypes of exotic primitivism among the peoples of the postcolonial world.
Still, the public interest in (read: market for) war photography does include a place for more discriminating photographers and for thoughtful, responsive work. The American photographer, Susan Meiselas’ 1981 Nicaragua reflects on the impact of wars of liberation on those who fight them, while her 1997 Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History interrogates an orphaned history through an innovative combination of texts and photographs. A series of works on Afghanistan, including the American photographer, Fazal Sheikh’s 1999 The Victor Weeps—Afghanistan, the British photographer, Simon Norfolk’s 2002 Afghanistan Chronotopia, and the ambitious 2003 work, War by the collective VII (Christopher Anderson, Alexandra Boulat, Lauren Greenfield, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer) together form a complex consideration of the American-instigated “War on Terrorism” that followed the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
If photographs of war in the 20th century both present history and are present in history, their own history is one not of forms but of functions, and functions renewed, to paraphrase the critic, Michel Frizot. Photographs of war are, in short, working cultural objects, deployed alternately to expose and to recall, to plead and to deliberate, to sanitize and to shock, to register the realities of war as well as to critique the imagination of those realities. They become evidence of what they show in relation to the questions put to them.