Picturing War: Experiencing Combat Photographs

Photography War and Peace



by Anne Wilkes Tucker, et al

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2012, 612 pp



Brooklyn Museum

New York City, NY                                                                                   


The Great War

by Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts

Knopf (for the Imperial War Museum), 2013, 504 pp



“Beauty! Terrible Beauty! 

A deathless Goddess -- so she strikes our eyes!”

                                        - Homer, The Illiad



An image of the aftermath of a suicide bombing on the No. 5 bus in Tel Aviv, shot from an aerial perspective, captures your gaze. The passengers and their possessions spill out the sides of the disemboweled bus. Frozen with fascination, you begin to pick out the details: a seat cushion, luggage, a leg. Springtime branches detached by the blast from a nearby tree add an incongruous shock of green. The arrangement and color of the composition gives the image an obscene carnival quality, illuminating the horror of it all. “Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!”1


I recall as a child thumbing the pages of a hardbound collection of Life magazine photographs discovered at my grandmother’s house. One photograph in particular I remember clearly. It was the image of a soldier killed in action during the battle of El Alamein. He was German, I guess, but I don’t recall the caption, and so I really can’t be sure. The soldier perished while struggling to exit the flaming wreckage of his tank. His head and shoulders rising above the hatch, his hands fused with the tank metal, he is eternally poised on the verge of escape. Only the shape of his blackened torso, his helmet, and his gaping mouth show him to be human. As a child I remember being struck most by the color; I couldn’t forget the absolute blackness of the enemy corpse against the endless greys of the North African desert. While I now better understand the brutal mechanics of gunshots and bomb blasts, and the transformative power of fire, I don’t believe I have any better understanding of violent death, the kind to leave your body an unrecognizable mass of desiccated flesh. Beyond comprehending the bare fact of what I saw in that book as a child, I cannot say I am closer to understanding the experience of such a thing: the smell of burned powder and seared flesh, the deafening noise, the agonized cries of the wounded.


The photograph encountered as a child is substantially identical to an image of an Iraqi soldier killed on the notorious Highway of Death, victim of the 1991 Allied assault on retreating Iraqi forces, which I recently witnessed for the first time at a Brooklyn Museum special exhibition, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY. Ignorance of the reality of violent death is indeed bliss, but probably because I lack experience in the mutilation of bodies, I am captivated by images of war.


Naïve curiosity has led me to become something of a student of human suffering, but even I was discomfited by the breadth and the depth of tragedy evidenced in the photographs collected by Anne Wilkes Tucker. Ranging from the Mexican-American war of 1844 to the 2011 Libyan Civil War, and covering approximately 70 unique conflicts, the collection is both exhaustive and exhausting. The images are drawn from every facet of the wartime experience, and their impact is greater for the decision by Tucker, senior curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, to present the photographs topically, rather than chronologically or by political grouping. She explains her decision in the introduction to the valuable companion book: “Given that no conflict takes the same course as any other, and that leaders, religions, history, cultures, and eras have an impact on the conduct and course of wars, certain patterns nevertheless begin to emerge in the recurrence of certain types of pictures when looking at thousands of photographs, and these photographs relate to a rough order of war.”2


The large number and variety of images collected by Tucker does much to protect WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY from accusations of political bias. Opinion among those occupying positions of authority during active hostilities, however, has consistently condemned the distribution of war photographs for public consumption. Beyond legitimate concerns of espionage, prevailing opinion agreed that images of combat would naturally stoke pacifist sentiments. In 1924, German anarchist and anti-war activist Ernst Friedrich collected in a volume dozens of photographs detailing the widespread, indiscriminant horrors of the recently concluded Great War. Published as War Against War, Friedrich conceived the work as a supplement to language’s inability to adequately describe the unimaginable carnage of industrial warfare. “All the treasury of words of all men of all lands suffices not,” he writes in the introduction, “in the present and in the future, to paint correctly this butchery of human beings. Here, however, in this present book… a picture of War, objectively true and faithful to nature, has been photographically recorded for all time.”3


Friedrich took for granted that the images reproduced in War Against War would succeed where words had failed, and result in mobilization against future war. The WWI battlefield photographs he collected were intended to shame and indict all men and women of conscience. As we approach 100-years since the apocalyptic events of August 1914, the intervening years have made abundantly clear that images of the unimaginable brutalities and depravations of war cannot alone be depended upon to mobilize public opinion.


“In a world in which photography is brilliantly at the service of consumerist manipulations,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 2003 short manifesto, Regarding the Pain of Others, “no effect of a photograph of a doleful scene can be taken for granted.”4 Not only have images lost much of their special power to shock, they also exist in a complex web of political signification that prevents the authenticity of the photographs being taken at face value. It is significant in this regard that the bodies on the pages of War Against War are not identified by nationality. Along with the photographs, the mangled bodies share anonymous origins. The reader is expected to suffer the same disgust at the sight of savaged Entente soldiers as at the sight of a deceased son of Germany. It is not that Friedrich dismissed politics; he only dismissed the political constellation that he identified as responsible for the deaths of many millions of his generation, and he felt that the novelty of war photography could reveal the emptiness of the political leadership’s rhetoric. Perhaps for the remaining idealists among us, images of preventable human suffering still possess the power to cause instant shame and indignation. But for most, something additional is required to guide our affective response.


It is difficult to dispute Sontag’s claim that “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.”5 The questions that arise in our encounter with a war photograph – what does the image reveal, when and where was it captured, for what purpose has it been reproduced? – cannot be answered without a textual supplement. In the printed introduction to WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, Tucker further qualifies the independence of the image: “Even the best pictures cannot answer those questions without accompanying captions and other texts, but even with accompanying texts, the answers are likely to vary among viewers and according to when, where, why and how the picture was published or displayed and to the text that accompanies it.”6


Ernst Friedrich’s professed belief that the images displayed in War Against War would alone provoke outrage and shame is belied by the inclusion of accusatory captions. Below a photo of a battlefield strewn with bodies, he includes a sarcastic quip: The "field of honor." Photos of dead soldiers on facing pages are supplemented by dual captions: beneath the first, "For the interests of Capital…"; beneath the next, "…and the glory of the Monarchy." Alongside an image of a destroyed Belgian village: "European Cultural Work." A bombed abbey: "Behold the constructive work of Capitalism."


The captions are only the most obvious manner of editorializing photographs. War Against War, for instance, juxtaposes photos of the royal heads of Europe encouraging soldiers from behind the front lines, and heaps of mangled bodies populating the no man’s land spread before enemy trenches. A visually literate viewer immediately grasps the sense of the juxtaposition: the honor of service and glory of combat, on the one hand, and its decidedly inglorious end on the other. Even more revealing of Friedrich’s motive is the series of photographs he presents together to conclude War Against War. These document the terrible woe of aftermath: the mangled and deformed faces of the wounded. Occupying the opposite pole of photographs produced for propaganda effect, which celebrated the glory of combat and the heroic ideal, these images reveal in gruesome detail the trace of battle surviving long after the cessation of hostilities.


According to media theorist Stephen Apkon, who developed the concept of visual literacy in his 2013 critical work The Age of the Image, “The unstoppable rise of visual expression as a popular means of conveying truth is going to require a new discernment on the part of the reader/viewer: a combination of skepticism and incisiveness that assesses the value of image-based argument rather than the spoken word.”7 What Apkon calls a "sensual kind of literacy" is, in our digital age, necessary for the critical understanding “that photographs and other forms of information are malleable and are often disseminated to manipulate public opinion as much as to inform.”8 Indeed, the propaganda value of war photographs has long been exploited, and the practice of photography and the modern history of warfare have deep parallels. Naturally, an important factor in our assessment of a war photography is the determination whether the photographer “served in a military or governmental capacity, worked from a commercial perspective, photographed strictly as an amateur, or primarily addressed wars and their aftermath subsequently, sometimes many years later, with galleries and museums as the destination for their works.”9


Reflecting on her process for choosing images to include in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY, Tucker notes that “many texts have been written on whether aesthetics should be a consideration for documentary photographers because, as critics postulate, subjective interventions such as visible aesthetic choices remove the air of cool impartiality expected in journalism…Documentary pictures that reduce visual information to the degree that they are solely beautiful pictures have been eliminated from the selections for this project because they lack qualities needed for additional inquiry.”10 Images of the monumental destruction of war—on the land, on the body, on the psyche—attracts our curiosity; they affect our nerves in such a way that we are just as compelled to seek them out as we are guaranteed to turn away in disgust. The beautiful, the sublime, and the titillating are all intimately bound with death: ultimately, the photograph reminds us of our own precarious existence. The beautiful and the grotesque imply and implicate each other, and so a good war photograph will sacrifice neither. There are innumerable images of bodies torn asunder in the most frightening ways; while these images may be gut-wrenching, that quality alone does not make them compelling war photographs. Reduction to the merely grotesque is equal to a reduction to the solely beautiful. The invitation to additional inquiry is the function of a certain vagueness that affects the photo when the photographer does not resort to cheap tricks intended to delight or disgust.


One of the first photos capturing the moment of combat was taken far behind the front lines. A British military transport had come under shrapnel fire during the Marne campaign, on the western front of WWI. A soldier in the middle of the frame moves toward the camera, crouching and reaching for his head, having just sustained a serious injury. The image is grainy and blurred, but succeeds in communicating something of the sudden chaos and fear of an enemy artillery attack. Early in that conflict, due to the limitation of the technology and military restrictions, most photos of offensive maneuvers were taken from a distance. This increased the usefulness to military command but could not communicate the devastation and hardships faced by frontline troops.


A change in the quality and quantity of combat images begins to be noticeable beginning in early 1917. Recognizing the need to compile a photographic record for propaganda and news in addition to operational functions, the British Army began designating official photographers to be embedded with the forward-deployed units. Thereafter, the quality and character of the images changes dramatically. Wide-angle vistas, shot from safety far behind the fighting, are replaced by the suffocating closeness of the trench. Portraits of troops at their leisure—which constituted the majority of soldier snapshots, and gave the home front an early impression of the war as holiday adventure— are replaced by images of grim faced infantry preparing to "go over the top." As the war dragged on, the images produced by the military photographers who had served in the most active units veered towards an unvarnished reproduction of the brutalities they witnessed: “Hardened by war and aware that their work would form part of their nation’s permanent record, the work of the longest-serving official photographers became increasingly graphic.”11


The Great War, published for the centennial commemoration of WWI by the British Imperial War Museum under the supervision of Hilary Roberts, is perhaps the most expansive sample of WWI photographs yet collected in a single volume. Although The Great War focuses on the British experience, the thoroughness of the collection reveals the truly worldwide nature of that conflict. Photos of Cameroonian and Nigerian tribesmen recruited to fight in Africa on behalf of their colonial masters are striking, as is an image recording the presence of a unit of Zulu soldiers serving in France. The uncanniness of these photos substantiates the notion that remembrance and photography in the age of the image are bound in a reciprocal relationship. Mark Holborn, editor of the volume, reinforces this point in his introduction: “We learned to read the picture long ago. A new visual narrative has to be driven first by the image. It is then substantiated by the information in caption, chronology, or summary.” Holborn is describing a sort of schematic for historical understanding, in which the image serves as the foundation upon which narrative is constructed. It is not surprising, then, to find the photographs in The Great War accompanied by extensive, explanatory captions highlighting the British experience at home and abroad. Organized into four divisions, each roughly corresponding to a year of the war, the images reprinted in this volume are all large format black and white, each occupying a single page. The chronological approach effectively creates a sense of dread as you work your way through the volume's 500 pages. Scenes of jubilation at the declaration of war in August 1914, like images of Ypres before evacuation, are palled by the knowledge of the horrors soon to come.

Roberts, head curator of the photographic archive at the Imperial War Museum, observes in a conversation with Anne Brooks included in the print volume of WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY that there were no commercial or official photographers on the frontlines in the early years of WWI. “Consequently, for all sides during the early years of the war, soldiers’ amateur snapshots of key moments were the only photographs taken.”12 A similar situation currently exists on the ground in Syria. Unable or reluctant to operate from the frontlines, Western governments and press rely on widely available and freely distributed images captured by anonymous local combatants. New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario, asked in a recent interview with Charlie Rose why, despite the dangers, she continues to document the conditions in Syrian refugee camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, replied that the humanitarian story is one she felt needs to be told. Yet she acknowledges that reporting from the refugee camps, while risky, is not the same as reporting from the frontlines. “In a case like Syria,” Addario adds, “in any other circumstance I would be there. I would go there and cover the war. But it has gotten to a point where so many journalists are kidnapped, that I don’t think it would be fair to my family.” Addario’s statement reflects a coeval transformation in the nature of war and the practice of photography. As the battlefield slips from the control of the state, so official photographers operating under the aegis of the military are replaced by an anarchic network of unaffiliated and anonymous soldier-photographers, adept at deploying social media to shape the narrative from the frontlines.


Recently, Syrian rebel Instagram accounts, Tumblr pages, and YouTube channels have been supplemented by a vast trove of photos, claimed to have been taken by a defected Syrian regime police photographer, codename Caesar. Considering Sontag’s observation that “In a system based on the maximal reproduction and diffusion of images, witnessing requires the creation of star witnesses,”13 these photos may constitute the authoritative source needed to demonstrate the “greatest crime against humanity in twenty years.” Unsurprisingly, the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad maintains the photographs were staged. Without a doubt, images of alleged atrocities have been proven to be counterfeit in the past. While it is true that “the possibilities for doctoring or electronically manipulating pictures are greater than ever,”14 the elaborate staging of phony atrocities appears to be a thing of the past. Nevertheless, as Errol Morris demonstrates in Believing is Seeing, the manipulation of war photographs for dramatic effect is a real phenomenon. War photographer Ben Curtis, discussing his craft with Morris, explains: “Photoshop manipulation is one thing; caption manipulation is another thing. But there’s also a question of editing in terms of picture selection, and obviously the pictures you select out of all the pictures you’ve shot, one can argue that that is also one area where the news is shaped. It’s what the media decides to report on.”15

Visual literacy, therefore, is inseparable from political literacy. This fact must be taken into account in our evaluation of atrocity photographs, which, as these images are often presented alongside demands for action, requires a special kind of evidence. Recall the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, arguing for a military intervention in Syria following the alleged poison gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta: “Now, some people here and there, amazingly, have questioned the evidence of this assault on conscience. I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen, and the Assad regime did it.” Kerry continued, in his testimony before congress, to assert as evidence the idea that within minutes of the attack, “social media exploded with horrific images of the damage that had been caused—men and women, the elderly and children sprawled on a hospital floor with no wounds, no blood, but all dead. Those scenes of human chaos and desperation were not contrived. They were real. No one could contrive such a scene.” If we recall Apkon’s definition of visual literacy as a combination of skepticism and incisiveness in evaluating image-based evidence, then we cannot avoid questioning the certainty Kerry expresses in his interpretation of the visual record of the events of August 21st. When evidence—compelling if not convincing—is reduced to an affective mental state (an “assault on conscience”), then it should come as no surprise that "new media" offer the paragon examples. That is because, according to Apkon, the visual “has become the preferred method for expressing a point of view to an international audience, where a spoken language is not always held in common by interested parties.”16

And yet it is difficult to imagine that public reaction to the ongoing crisis in Syria, which has been so thoroughly documented, could be any more subdued. Perhaps, despite Apkon’s claim that our experience of photography affects us on a primal, libidinal level, the higher order function of political discernment is preventing the western public from identifying with victims of Middle Eastern violence. Or, perhaps counter-intuitively, it is the sheer number of images emanating from the Syrian crisis that is responsible for its failure to capture the conscience of the West. Photographers Robert Harriman and John Louis Lucaites observed that “a few dominant images can reflect either a scarcity of images or the reverse: an overabundance that has to be ignored if one is to function at all." Journalist Tim Arango drew a similar conclusion when he wrote, "In an age of saturated media coverage and short attention spans, it may be more difficult for new images to take root in the collective memory.”17 The overabundance of images that is one of the hallmarks of the conflict in Syria mirrors the public perception of that war as a confused conflagration resisting traditional distinctions between victim and aggressor.


We are still awaiting the iconic photo that will crystallize opinion on the Syrian Civil War. War photographs that achieve iconic status reveal the collective understanding of a conflict and reinforces what is already known; the image, in effect, becomes a "visual shorthand" for the conflict. Iconic photos reinforce what we already believe about the nature of the conflict. Joe Rosenthal‘s photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi came to represent for generations of Americans the honor and sacrifice of their troops as they waged a brutal war of necessity in the Pacific. Likewise, Nick Ut's chilling photo of 9-year old Kim Phuc escaping, naked and burned, from the smoldering ruins of her village came to represent the moral bankruptcy of American policy in Vietnam. A hazy photo of the Imperial German Army advancing thigh-deep in wildflowers down a hillside likely predates WWI, but became iconic as a representation of the German offensive to the River Marne in August 1914. The fact that this image does not capture the action of the actual German advance does not lessen its status as an iconic image; nor does it diminish the truthfulness of the image.


Errol Morris considers the relationship between photography and truth to be problematic, but truthfulness, in the context of war photography, cannot be reduced to mere correspondence with the facts. In a combat environment, when even the most basic facts are disputed by the warring parties, photographs bear an authoritative silence. Doubtless, war photographs can be malleable instruments, and their propaganda value alone should cause hesitation when speaking of their truthfulness. Sustained engagement, however, has the potential to place the viewer in a relationship with the details of the image that may reveal a deeper truth. In what kind of condition are the soldier’s boots? How clean are the uniforms? Have the soldiers had a shave recently? What do their eyes reveal about where they have been, or where they may be going? What does their body language tell? These are the details that empower the imagination, and may endow the best war photographs with the potential to communicate some sense of the experience of war.


This is the demand of a war photograph: that you give time to the photo that the photographer, operating under conditions of necessity, could not give to taking it. The caption acts as a supplement to limitation on our time and attention, but fidelity to the truth is the reward of sustained engagement, which is simply not always possible in a gallery or a museum. One of the more damning photographs in the WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY collection captures a young female, identified in the caption as a victim of a WWII pogrom in the western Ukrainian city of Lvov. She is naked, and seems to be attempting to rise from a prone position on the curb of a crowded sidewalk. She reaches out to the camera, looking straight into the lens, while a bystander, an older woman, struggles to replace her underwear. The wild exasperation in her eyes demands your attention, "Stop this!" she urges. You want to turn from her accusatory gaze; the crowd in the gallery jostling for a look gives you reason.


Engagement with the images in the gallery is bounded by physical space and social propriety. Even if you were successful in carving out a private space in front a framed photograph, your consciousness of others will likely keep you from really looking. The companion book, however, shows your conscience no quarter.


War photographs demand. They call upon the viewer to take a stand, for or against. There is no space for neutrality in the visual record of war’s horrors. Sontag suggested that perhaps only those with the power to do something to alleviate the depredations of war have the right to look at war photographs. To that, critic David Levi Strauss responds: “one needs first to feel the pain of others before one can begin to act to alleviate it. And one of the ways humans recognize the pain of others is by seeing it in images.”18


The photographs collected in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY and The Great War reveal such depths of suffering that one glance is not sufficient to even approach an understanding of the pain, fear, and loss experienced. These images voice a much more difficult demand: they ask that when you want to turn away, you stay. 








1.     Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others (Picador, 2003).

2.     Anne Tucker. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY (Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2012).

3.     Ernst Friedrich. War Against War (1925).

4.     Sontag, 2003.

5.     Ibid.

6.     Tucker, 2012. 

7.     Stephen Apkon. The Age of the Image (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) 

8.     Tucker, 2012.

9.     Ibid.

10.   Ibid.

11.   Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts. The Great War (Knopf/Imperial War Museum, 2013)

12.   Tucker, 2012. 

13.   Sontag, 2013.

14.   Ibid.

15.   Errol Morris. Believing is Seeing (The Penguin Press, 2011).

16.   Apkon, 2013.

17.   Tucker, 2012.

18.   David Levi Strauss. "Nikons and Icons."



Death, Susan Sontag, Syria