How Photographers Change The Way You Feel About War

Seeker Stories defines itself as taking a deep look at some of the world’s most unique individuals, places, and cultures. With weekly short documentaries set out to expand our perspective and transform our understanding of the world. Having watched their latest documentary about the role photographers play during wartime, I have to say, they've achieved what they set out to do. I've often thought about being a wartime photographer and this video has rekindled that desire. What better way to legitimize my privileged, behind-the-lens, work existence, than to use it to increase humankind's understanding of what it is to fight a war. Heck... maybe after you watch this we will see each other on the front lines one day.

Throughout history, journalists have risked their lives on the front lines of war to bring us the truth. Learn how they've had an impact.
This weekly storytelling series uses the imagery of photographers and adventurers around the world to give us a deeper connection to and understanding of the human condition.

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Andrew Craft's picture

Ever since I picked up a camera, I have wanted to do war/conflict photography.

I have always hoped that I could show humanity. Humans who are supposed to hate each other on paper, according to their government, according to their religion, according to their neighbor, yet, humanity wants to destroy the idea of war.

These men and women realize that the propaganda is false. That evil person in the other country is the same as they are... Human.

That is a common misconception from Hollywood movies.
In reality, though, it is quite different (and I'm speaking this as a Serb who lives in Serbia, where a lot of people has a first-hand experience of war). The first reaction of those people to the photograph that shows humanity is "that's propaganda...".
You can't easily make people who hate each other, believe in humanity, because, in essence, wars are dirty, inhumane, mass killing machines driven by politicians for reasons that are far from humane. When you're in a war, you want to kill the guy from the other side, because he might be the one who had killed your friends/relatives/wife/children...
Wars are seriously bad events. Try to avoid them as much as you can...

Dylon Algire's picture

In a class/seminar I attended, one of the speakers showed famous/national news photography from wars over the years and it was amazing to see how much was staged.

The "behind the scenes" photos showed photographers posing people, staging scenes, and manipulating the media. They would use dead bodies of children that were blatenly from another "attack/mishap", some of which were well into the stages of rigor mortis and yet were used to portray events just occuring or occuring "live". Some photos would show the photo that was published from a different angle, showing that there were no mass crowds or anything and what you saw on camera was all being staged. They even had video of people posing the subjects in like a freeze frame way while everyone was positioned correctly. They use fake blood, they have a man that comes by and drops toys in rubble, they use the same old crying woman in multiple photos, and they photoshop explosions into the background.

It made me disgusted as a photographer to say the least. I too always thought how amazing it was that they were able to capture amazing photos right in the middle of a conflict but after seeing that I lost all "awe and amazement".

The staging is a pretty recent development. Historically it has not been like that. I think the competition of photography is what has driven that sort of thing.

mark millar's picture

Conflict photography has been heavily manipulated from the start.

Photos from The US Civil War are rife with examples of bodies or cannon balls being moved about the battlefield to suit the needs of the photographer or the 'agency' behind the photographs. Photography from The Spanish Civil War was also full of accusations of manipulation. I'm not weighing in on the Capa debate (one of my favourite photographers), but the fact that there is a debate shows that manipulation was something on everyones minds at the time.

From that point forward it only really gets worse. The manipulation of photographs on both sides of World War II was rampant (from editing out stolen wrist watches on the arm of a Soviet Hero above the Reichstag to removing German prisoners of war from photographs so that nobody had to admit to executing them later in the day), ditto for the conflicts in Nicaragua, Iraq (all of them - both the Iran war and the various US led wars), Israel / Palestine and the former Yugoslav /Balkan republics. The list just goes on and on

The manipulation for aesthetic or propaganda rationale has been going on since cameras were brought to the battlefields.

That being said, the awe and amazement for those who stand in the line of fire with the goal of trying to capture some kind of truth shouldn't be lost.

You're not incorrect, it's just that most of the photographers weren't actively staging their photos a century and a half ago. Photo manipulation has been around as long as photography, one of the most well known photos of President Lincoln had his head on John Calhoun's body. People and objects have been painted in and out of photographs for a long time. Matthew Brady was one of the photographers who was thought to have moved dead bodies during the Civil War in order to make a well composed photo, but it was not really common among the thousands of photographers that were out there. We might also consider why they moved objects instead of themselves... when it takes an entire wagon that must be completely level just to take a picture, you might be more inclined to move the object because getting into certain places or getting another perspective isn't possible.

mark millar's picture

I disagree with (what I think is) your underlying premise. But I can always stand to be correct.

Conflict photographers have been staging photographs since the beginning of the genre. I don't believe that there were thousands of photographers in the early years, and to find even a few who were actively staging for aesthetic or propaganda reasons, means that there was a large proportion doing so. I suppose there are more staged photographs today than in the past, but is it only because there are more photographs?

Guys like Brady in the US and Fenton at Sevestapol (some of the earliest pioneers) were actively moving bodies and other objects around the battlefields. They did this for reasons beyond aesthetics, to create a larger feeling of mayhem. I certainly wasn't there, but from all of the various comments, both contemporary to the photographers and now, indicate that they didn't do this for technical or purely aesthetic reasons, but for propaganda of one kind or another.

My only point is that staging for political / propaganda reasons has been going on from the beginning at a level that most lay people don't understand. From the earliest pioneers all the way through to today, I can't think of a (major) conflict that didn't contain an image from either/both sides that didn't include staging.

I guess we would really have to dig into who hired the photographer and their motivation for moving things around. And there is an ethical debate about the choice to move bodies and objects around to make a more interesting "still life" photograph. If you're staring at a battlefield after the action is over, and you're trying to convey what you see but cannot depict accurately with your camera, how far over the ethical line is it to move some objects around? Is it just as unethical to move a rifle as it is to stage an entire combat with actors and fake blood? These are interesting questions that are deserving of discussion.

My grandfather's stepfather was a WWI photographer for the US Army. His sole purpose was to take portraits, as he owned a portrait studio, and document what he could to be passed on to the high ranking officers. It was critical these photographs weren't altered beyond basic development adjustments. Unfortunately, as time passes a lot of information gets lost and images are more or less grouped together. You can search the National Archives for any given war photos and find a lot of altered images. But is that the majority of the war images? Or the majority of the photographers? I doubt it. I think the view is somewhat skewed because the number of published war photographs.

Rob Watts's picture

Interesting book I found one day at the book store, written by a woman combat photographer none the less.

mark millar's picture

Just two general comments.

First, I don't think that conflict photography, generally, provides a glimpse of humanity. More often than not it shows just how bad things really are and how horrible people are. On top of that, I don't see how among a few million dead, a moment of tenderness captures much beyond hypocrisy. I'm happy that photography does this. War is bad. All war. I'm with Marko here, good conflict photography should help people avoid it.

Second, Kenn, you've brought some really interesting things to Fstoppers, I often follow along. This video is one of them. I really appreciate your sentiment about legitimizing privilege by doing something with it. That rings very true to me. I don't like the glib statement about seeing each other on the front lines. Conflict photography is a very very serious business, that at its heart, hopefully does legitimize this privilege of ours. I realize that it may be easy to ask me to lighten up, but I don't think glib has a part in any discourse about something so primal and profound. That might be different if we're going to meet for a private drink as brothers in arms at a watering hole in Kinshasa or Kabul. Thanks again Kenn for the chance to discuss.

Kenn Tam's picture

Thank you for your support, perspective and kind words. But when it comes to the application of humor/tone, it’s a personal choice as to where one believes it fits and doesn't. And believe me when I say I will apply it anywhere and every where that I choose. When I write I write with my voice and without filters (it’s me). That being said “glib” is defined (in part) as being insincere and shallow and there was neither of those in said statement. And no I would never tell you to “lighten up” because just as I wouldn’t have anyone dictate to me how to conduct myself, I wouldn’t in turn tell anyone else how they should act, feel, or express. In short, you don't have to like it and that's ok.

mark millar's picture

As is certainly your right! (No intention to imply insincerity to your general message, sorry if it came across that way)

Kenn Tam's picture

No apologies necessary. I replied because I respect and appreciated your input otherwise I just would have not responded.

Yoav Karmon's picture

As a combat photographer (as part of a recon unit) in the IDF i can tell
you first handed that its almost impossible for foreign photojournalists
to be objective when it comes to conflict zones or war zones to be precise.
when you come to this areas you need to select a side and stick with it while
taking photos. if you change sides in the middle, the other side might see it as
helping the enemy, and it's not very good for your health.
that's why foreign and domestic photojournalist in israel for example
choose their stage carefully when it comes to the west bank, they won't go too much
inside the palestinian cities where they are more loyal to Hamas orgnization for
example, because the more fanatics control there and israel has almost
zero control inside those cities, so if you coverage other from the way Hamas think
that can lead to trouble in those areas. that's why photojournalist attend areas where
israel is more in control, but still in an area where the palestinians can show their strength
and influence the global media.
PS - not taking any sides, the common people aren't the problem, politicians are.

Yoav Karmon's picture

The "objective view" of photographers and videographer are checked because of what you are talking about, and the military is taking it very seriously, if with combat videographers or action cameras on the soldiers helmet for IDF spokesperson who can show this material to the global media who is sometimes more limited in actions within the more problematic areas of the conflict zones.