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The War Photographer

The War Photographer

War is the lowest or at least one of the lowest attributes of the human species. In the 21st century we claim to be more evolved, more intelligent, and more civilized than our early ancestors. But, we are still animals. Every animal in nature has a defense mechanism, that defends them against danger, and humans are no different. We see danger from other human beings and we react with violence. At the same time, our consciousness has evolved and most of us agree that killing another human is taboo or wrong.

Religions around the world preach against killing another human and governments punish their citizens for committing it, while at the same time we support an acceptable form of killing in the form of war. It is almost as if humans are so vulnerable to their instincts that we have to add other names to them to allow society and our rational minds to condone them. We make movies about war and glorify victories in history. Many countries put the largest percentage of their resources and money into war. We try and try throughout history to make it acceptable to wage war, but mostly every individual we speak that has witnessed war speaks of its horrors and it contrasts what we have always been told to believe.

If war is so evil and wrong then why does it keep happening? Is it religion, money, or power? We have seen wars started over all these reasons, but it is impossible to point out one main reason for war. Looking at all the evidence, one must make the conclusion that war is inevitable. Maybe, one day the human mind and the world can evolve to a point where higher consciousness prevails and war is no longer needed. But, until then war is inevitable and everyone is to blame even those who claim to hate it, because they still take part in the human world.

There is only a limited amount of space on this one planet and anytime you inhabit an area or use resources you are keeping for yourself what could be another’s. So, we can’t stop war, but those with the means to prevent it can do so. This is where war journalists do their part.

One tool in the prevention of war is education. If a community understands the evil of war and understands those they call their enemy they are many times more likely to use peaceful means of solving their problems. War journalists are the heroes that place themselves in the middle of human hell to show, to those not taking part in the war, the reality of it. As an example, coming from an American perspective, we are a nation that has a large obsession with war. We have the largest military in the world and pride ourselves in its power and might. Our media pumps out entertainment that is full of war and violence, but most of the people watching these movies will never know its reality. They sit in the comfort of their homes and dream of what war would be like. Many times they are misconceived into believing there is honor, glory, and excitement in war and when the opportunity comes they are willing to send others to die and kill, but then they simply return to their normal day to day routines and the war never affects them. The overall population (this an assumption made from viewing the society) is more interested in the new television shows, sports, and lives of movie stars than the individuals who had died the same day in a war they voted for and claim to have a bumper sticker in support of.

This is a strong critique of the U.S. population, but this also occurs worldwide and throughout history and no country or community is exempt from criticism. The following essay is an historical timeline of war photojournalist. In each era and society the images they captured helped to contribute to some education for a population to understand war. The reactions and impact the images had differ from place and time. Some may have fueled anti-war sentiment or some may have fueled nationalism and anger that perpetuated a war, but each contributed to the education of those who were not there to witness the conflict. War has always existed along with humans in some form. But, the changing world and the more recent tool of the camera can more effectively educate populations and contribute to the lessening of the frequency of violence.
Photography has always had a strong relationship with war. Since the invention of the camera war photographs have been taken. Before this, war was visually shown through paintings and drawings depicting the violence and destruction. When the camera was invented, it took their place and gave a more accurate depictions.

One of the earliest forms of war photography was during the American Civil War through work of Mathew Brady. Brady began his career as a portrait photographer of important societal figures during the 1850’s and up to the beginning of the Civil War.With his photo of Abraham Lincoln he showed the world the impact and education tool that photography could be. Rumors of Lincoln’s ugliness were widespread during the election, so in his photograph of Lincoln, Brady added light to his shaven face and posed him in a statesmanlike stance. This was seen as a large contribution to Lincoln’s success in the election.

This impact on elections by the camera can also be seen a hundred years later in 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s dress and handsome looks on camera were seen as a contributor to him beating his badly-dressed and looking opponent, Nixon. Brady’s education on war would come soon.

The more widespread use of cameras and the invention of the telegraph opened up a new form of war journalism where newspapers could get their news from civilian photographers and journalist instead of relying on military reports. This allowed for more graphic war images to emerge. But, many of the images were never printed in newspapers, due to the lack of technology to make half-tone blocks. Brady and his corp of photographers gained access to the battlefield through Allan Pinkerton, head of the presidential protection organization. This gave them close accounts of the bloodshed while at the same time their photos were being used by Union forces as maps and information to where battles could be fought. Brady and his corp were strongly Union oriented didn’t intend on creating anti-war propaganda, but they used the photos intentionally or non-intentionally to raise awareness of the reality of the war for one of the first times.

With his release of photographs, of the Battle of Antietam in 1862 at his studio in New York City, he brought a view of the war to the North of a war that was predominantly being fought on Southern lands. It allowed for mothers, politicians, and rich citizens that were never going to witness the war to see copies of its reality. New Yorker’s and many Northern citizens only read accounts of the war and saw the names of the dead, but Brady’s work brought a new form of reporting that sparked large emotion in those that viewed them. A reporter from the New York Times was quoted as saying about the war, “I was like a funeral next door…We recognize the battlefield as a reality, but it stands a remote one. Our sensations might be different if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battle-field and the bodies at our doors instead.” Brady’s photographs had “done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

One thing that must also be accounted for in the Civil War reporting was the amount of sensationalism. Correspondence and newspaper writers from both sides of the war faked deaths, glorified battles, and many times outright re-wrote history. Reporters at the time saw their jobs to be morale sustainers for the army and the civilians of the side they supported, rather communicators of the truth. As one correspondent wrote, a skirmish became a “glorious overwhelming victory” and a dead confederate was “sacrificed to the devilish ambitions of his implacable masters, Davis and Lee.” With all the sensationalism in both the North and the South the truth was a rarity. The closest aspect of the war that anyone would ever see is the photos coming back from the battlefield.

Although there is evidence that Brady and his corp staged photos of the dead, the photos were still the closest thing to reality there was at the time. The camera can lie with help of the photographer, but only to an extent at that time.

Moving forward in history, another civil war took place that would change the way war photography was viewed. In many ways the Civil War in Spain was the precursor of World War II. The total collapse of a civilization, the cruelty, and the politics that would soon follow were all apparent during the civil war and could have been a warning to the world of what would follow. We know now that the world did not take the warning, but it would also be wrong to say that no one tried to warn them.

The war began in 1936 when a group of right wing generals largely supported by the old-order of the country made up of bankers, lawyers, clergy. landlords, army, etc that opposed the elected government of the Second Republic which was largely supported by the peasants, workers, writers, poets, etc. It became a class war that the rest of the world would soon be watching as the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini gave their support and arms to the opposition that saw the war as a crusade to purge the Reds (socialist, communist, anarchist) from Spain and go back to the old Christian Catholic state. The Socialist government of Russia gave their support to the Republic who saw the war as a new age movement, and many in their ranks saw it as a new Marxist Utopia. Soon, the clash of these ideals would tear the country apart with the battle lines drawn everywhere even in the middle of towns.

Seeing this rise in Fascism many Americans, Europeans, and others around the world ,who saw as a threat to humanity, flocked to Spain to join the Republic in what they would call International Brigades. Many great minds took part like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. The world was watching as all of what they feared began to occur. For the world to see what was happening, it took those who would risk their lives like Robert Capa to get the story out of Spain.

Capa came into the war as a Jew, a refugee, leftist, democrat, and anti-fascist who held obvious support of the Republic. From 1936 to 1939 Capa photographed the conflict while attaching himself to Republican fighters. With his gift of photography and reporting Capa attempted to show the world his viewpoint. He reported a war and a cause that he believed was mandatory for peace to survive in Europe. He foresaw that the fall of a Republic Spain would have greater consequences to the world as fascism began to spread. This no more apparent than in his book “Death in the Making.” Published in 1938 during the Civil War it acted as an education tool to warn the rest of the world what was at stake in Spain.

The photos taken during 1936 and 37, before the Republican forces began to fall to the Nationalist, were of a different nature than what war photographers had normally shown. With an obvious intention to humanize the conflict Capa included personal portraits of individuals that were taking part in the conflict. This included not only soldiers and fighters, but civilians caught in the middle of violence. He wanted foreigners to sympathize with the Republicans by raising emotions and showing similarities that everyone could relate to. He attempted to show two sides of Spain. One was the new total war that the world had never seen before which he described as “the ingenious death from the skies,” while showing photos of conflict, such as soldiers with barricades built in the center of city streets, his most famous photo “the falling soldier” of a Republican soldier the moment he was shot, or civilians staring at the sky as enemy bomber planes flew over their towns.

The other side he attempted to show was the hope and optimism that still existed in Spain. He wanted to portray that the country was not a lost cause that the world still needed to lend their support to. He captured this through the dancing and happiness of soldiers on the Aragon front or well-dressed couples laughing and eating dinner as if the war wasn’t even a reality. Ultimately, Spain fell to the fascist under General Francisco Franco and Capa never returned to Spain. His attempt to gather world support failed and the world did not learn. World War II followed which would mimic the Spanish Civil War on a much larger scale.
One criticism that remains about Capa’s work is how many times he left out the true reality of the Spanish Civil War. He portrayed the Republicans as moral victims that the rest of the world should support to save from fascism in an attempt to save themselves from it spreading, and in many ways this was a valid argument. But, while putting all his effort into the Republican cause Capa failed to show the atrocities committed by those he supported. In war, there are no saints. It is true that, with the weapons supplied by Nazi-Germany, the fascist Nationalist bombed civilians and cities into submission. But, the Republicans were a mix of ideals only with a common cause to resist fascism. They had Marxist, anarchist, democrats, and those with strong anti-religion sentiments. As shown in Ernest Hemingway’s book “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Republicans were known to go into Nationalist towns and murder the townspeople along with catholic clergy like monks, priests and nuns. In the war no side was exempt from committing atrocities. A photo taken of Republican militia-men firing on the Monument of the Sacred Heart on the Cerro de los Angeles in Madrid was published throughout the world and aroused anger in many Catholics towards the Republicans as more stories began to emerge of religious related murders. When the photo was printed in a pro-nationalist magazine in London the caption read “Spanish Reds War On Religion,” further pushing the idea the Republicans were declaring war on religion.

Finally, whatever his motive, Robert Capas photos are a source of important historical context that show a time in history that we can all still learn a lesson from.

The next photographers work differs greatly from what comes to our minds when we think of war photography. As we all know war is more complex than just the killing and the battle. When countries go to war the whole country is affected in some way and many times civilians suffer. The work by Dorothea Lange inside American Japanese internment camps during World War II is an important example of how human and citizen rights are often times overlooked during war time.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 strong paranoia spread in the United States that Japanese spies may be in the country. Racism towards the Japanese became so accepted that even General John DeWitt, head of the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, was quoted as saying, “the Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on American soil, possessed of American citizenship, have become ‘Americanized.” The acceptance of this racism and war paranoia led to the internment by the U.S. government of tens of thousands of individuals with Japanese ancestry two thirds of which were U.S. citizens. At the time Lange was known for her work during the Great Depression on urban poverty for the Resettlement Administration, so the government contacted her to document the internment camps. Ironically, Lange was herself against the internment camps and was part of an organization that protested the initial executive order of the internment. Her strong views are quite apparent in her work from the internment camps in California. Many of the photos show strong American elements and culture that were regular in the camps due to the fact that two thirds of the those in the camps were still U.S. citizens and some for many generations. Photos of Japanese school children holding the U.S. flag and dressed in American style clothing helped to show the patriotism that still existed in the Japanese American community regardless that their country was treating them so badly. One of her photos even shows a young Japanese-American Army soldier with his mother from came Japan, who gave birth to her son in the U.S., days before they were to be interned, adding even more to the absurdity of the whole operation.

Photographs such as a father with playing with his daughter against the background of the barb-wire fencing and the internment camp housing, illustrates the reality that human beings that felt love and emotions like everyone else, were being treated wrongly due to their race. Overall, Lange’s photographs of the internment camps strongly depict the immorality of the Japanese internment through photographs of the conditions the occupants of the camps were living. One such shocking photograph shows a row of horse stalls that Lange wrote were converted into living quarters for Japanese families.

Lange’s photos could have been used to raise awareness of what was being done to Japanese-Americans, but due to how her photographs criticized the camps the government impounded her 800 photos until the end of the war and then placed them deep in the National Archives. It wasn’t until recently that they have been rediscovered and released to the public. It is too late now for photographs to be used as they should have been. The deed has already been done, and now they remain only as a warning of how humanity can be ignored during wartime.
The next war I will discuss is plagued with controversy and there is much discussion on how the media added to this. The idea of the Vietnam War began out of the Cold War mentality that the spread of Communism was a threat to the United States and must be stopped. The United States and the West preached against the danger of communism and how it was a threat to freedom. In reality, the only reason that the Western politicians and media preached this idea was that they saw Communist countries and revolutions as battlegrounds for the Cold War that was occurring with the Soviet Union. Rather than have an all-out war with each other, which would have led to a greater nuclear catastrophe, the Soviet Union supporting the Communist uprising in North Vietnam and the United States supporting the anti-Communist South Vietnam used the conflict to wage war against each other. At first the war began largely unopposed by the U.S. population, but as the war that became a large conflict in 1961, and dragged on into the late 1960’s costing the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers, more in population began to question the legitimacy of the war.

At this time, in the U.S. and the world, the environment, culture, and politics was rapidly changing. Ideas that are vital for a nation to condone a war began to be opposed by ideas from the middle-class youth of the countries. Race, poverty, and gender began to be questioned not only in the aspect of the war, but in the countries themselves. The civil rights movement of blacks in the 1960’s U.S. began to raise awareness of the racism towards Asia in Vietnam. Homegrown Communism movements began to arise in the Western World that questioned the morals of capitalism and the war against communism, a poor workers movement. The young sub-culture of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll began to show itself in the war zone with soldiers listening to Jimmy Hendrix during battle, painting peace signs on their helmets, and widespread drug abuse in the ranks. But, at the same time the old-order of politics and the generations that fought in and strongly supported wars of World War II and the Korea kept the war continuing and held the belief that Communism must be defeated. But, in 1973 after 12 years of large conflict and the loss of thousands of U.S. troops and many more Vietnamese civilians the U.S and world populations support of the war had sunk so tremendously low the U.S. troops were finally forced to pull out of Vietnam and the Communist government of North Vietnam conquered the country. As we know now no “domino effect” of Communist countries ever occurred and the war was seen as a huge blunder by the United States.
Of all the reasons for opposition to the war, none was blamed more for its end than the news media. Color television and the nightly news began to show a war to the world in such a realistic and raw fashion that the world had never seen. The military at the time held a very lenient policy of what journalist could report as opposed to the strict guidelines of future and current wars. As a result, strong graphic footage and photographs were shown to the world of death and destruction of soldiers and civilians alike. Dead and wounded soldiers were shown in newspapers and the television, which is seen as a taboo and disrespectful in our current culture.There was little to no filter of graphic material and for one of the first times in history the U.S. population was seeing the un-censored reality of war and they were appalled.

Huỳnh Công Út’s (nick Ut) photograph taken in 1972 of young Phan Thị Kim Phúc represents this more than any other photo. The photograph shows young, naked, and burned Phan Thị Kim Phúc running with other children and civilians, after U.S. planes had accidentally dropped napalm on South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. The graphic photograph shows terror in her eyes as an obvious village behind her burns from the aftermath of the napalm. This photo digs at such core emotions of any human being. Rather than seeing the war as a fight between men, the viewer is quite aware, from the photo alone, that civilians are being hurt also. A photo taken minutes after this shows the back of Phan Thị Kim Phúc badly burned while she is helped by soldiers. Ut described the situation, “When I took a picture of them I heard a child screaming and saw that young girl who had pulled off all her burning clothes. She yelled to her brother on her left. Just before the napalm was dropped soldiers (of the South Vietnamese Army) had yelled to the children to run but there wasn’t enough time.” Ut, after taking his photos, went further than his duty and job demanded, and drove Phan Thị Kim Phúc and her family to the hospital. She later quoted in an interview later in life that Ut saved her life.

Nick Ut’s photo has appeared as an anti-war/anti-globalization image in modern culture. This particular one was done by the graffiti artist Banksy

Initially the photo came under scrutiny by the AP, because it showed frontal nudity (this seems to be a ridiculous argument due to the graphic photos of violence already being shown), but soon was released and was printed in newspapers and magazines across the world. An image that showed such an evil of war was obviously never going to be used in support of the war. The photo was quickly spread in the U.S. as a tool for anti-war protestors and across the world the North Vietnamese were using it as anti-American propaganda. Then in 1973 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize further emphasizing its importance.

Overall, Ut’s “Napalm Girl” photograph played a role in the larger idea that the War in Vietnam was not helping, but only hurting the people of the Vietnam and the U.S. The photo and the Vietnam War itself, should be used as a warning of how war should at all cost be avoided.
Time and time again we have seen these hellish images of war blasted in our faces. No one wanted to see them, but we all believed that we needed to see them. Many times throughout history it seemed that peace was finally upon us, only to be disheartened with another conflict. The images of past wars lost their value when, what should have been warnings, were ignored. Now in our globalized we see images and videos constantly of the victims, soldiers, dead, and dying and we know that the reality of war is no longer a secret. There is a loss of hope. No work communicates this feeling more than that of James Nachtwey.

Being a modern war photographer he has captured conflicts from South Africa, to Bosnia, to the current war in Afghanistan. His photos show the raw reality of war through mutilated, dead, and abused subjects in the worst environments in the world. He consistently shows pure suffering and does not sugarcoat war in any way. Photos of happy soldiers, gallant portraits of generals or heroic looking charges are all absent from his work. There is no sense of hope in his work only a direct warning. Writer David Rieff described it perfectly when he said, “Nachtwey draws, “a moral line in the sand…that is based on suffering alone.” In a way his work reflects the modern frustration that many feel towards human existence. When others dabble in ideals or meaning to conflict it only further perpetuates the cycle. Nachtwey avoids this and gives the straight hardcore truth. In his book “Inferno” the title furthers the idea of hell on earth. The 480 book published in 1999 came under strong criticism for its gruesome hopelessness. One critic was quoted as saying that it “has a ruthless attitude…that punishes us” (for viewing). But, Nachtwey does not deny these claims. He was once quoted as saying he wanted to “ruin the day” of his viewer. It seems contradictory for critics to claim that a book of war images should be pleasing to view. If a photograph is of war, it should not be easy to view. That would only perpetuate the lie.
In conclusion, history and war has passed along with the photographs and photographers who document it. We hope that the world is more educated, by the higher quantity of images and reflections of reality coming from these wars, but we have seen that the job is not done. Photographers and journalist seem to be moving away from the lie that is war propaganda and are creating work that is less biased and more raw than there earlier colleague’s, as seen with Nachtweys work. Only time will tell if those risking their lives to make these images are helping the human race. It seems that as long as there are humans, there will be war. Be it true or not the one thing that must be avoided is movement back into the cave as a species. Education and awareness must be upheld.


Works Cited

1.Faas, Horst and Fulton, Marianne. “Nick Ut – Still a Photographer with the Associated Press” <> Feb 20, 2012.
2.Gordon, Linda. “Internment Without Charges: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment” < > Feb 23, 2012.
3.Knightley, Phillip. First Casualty Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
4.Linfield, Susie. The Cruel Radiance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
5.Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc. 2011.
6.Moeller, Susan D. Shooting War New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1989.
7.Panzer, Mary. Mathew Brady and the Image of History New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1997.
8.Smith, Dinita. “Photographs of an Episode That Lives in Infamy”
< > Feb 23, 2012.
9.“1936: The Sacred Heart, by Spanish leftists” < > Feb 20, 2012.

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