WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath
War has been a constant throughout human history, and yet it was not until the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century that the stark reality of war entered the lives and homes of people far removed from the field of battle. Millions upon millions of photographs of war have been made by military personnel, commercial photographers, amateurs, and fine art photographers.
The exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath presents some 400 photographs of conflicts that occurred on six continents over the span of 166 years, from the Mexican-American War in 1846 through the civil war in Libya in 2012. This is not, however, a chronological survey of each war over that span of time. Rather, this landmark exhibition seeks to offer a more comprehensive exploration of the type of images created in any conflict, without regard to era or nationality. As a result, the photographs are not arranged by specific war. Instead, they are arranged according to what might be called the general progression—the “arc”—of every war. The arc of war moves from the instigation of the conflict to the recruitment of troops, their training and embarkation; to the experience of combat itself and the “fog of war”; to the chaotic consequences of battle, with the taking of prisoners and, often, executions and reprisals; to the suffering of the wounded and of refugees; and finally to war’s end, with the return home of the troops, and the establishment of memorials and rituals of remembrance.
There are many perspectives, military and non-military, from which a photograph of armed conflict can be viewed, but all images leave their mark on the way we understand our world. The curators hope that this exhibition will serve as a platform from which meaningful dialogue about human conflict and more extensive research will spring for generations to come.
MEDIA COVERAGE AND DISSEMINATION
“War photographs have always been a distillation of battle marketed for home consumption,” writes the historian Susan Moeller. In the late nineteenth century, newspapers dominated publishing in the United States. Competition for readers was fierce. Bold headlines and sensationalized accounts earned enormous profits for publishers. Photographs, which had to be reproduced as engravings or woodblock prints, were used to sway public opinion.
Photo agencies were established in the mid-nineteenth century. Photographs were first transmitted by telephone or telegraph in the 1920s, and later via radio transmission, allowing images to be sent across oceans and continents in a matter of minutes. Photo agencies such as the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) became the main means by which photographs were supplied to publications around the world.
Today, images of conflict are no longer defined by a single force, agency, or publication, but by an increasingly interconnected digital realm. The photography of warfare continues to evolve—the capability to instantly post images on the Internet has collapsed the layers of mediation between photographer and viewer, allowing conflicts in faraway places to be observed back home almost as they take place.
THE ADVENT OF WAR
Events that instigate and provoke war are often surprise attacks. Photographers are unlikely to be present, so images that depict the initial aggressive act are rare. Robert Clark’s photographic sequence of the second plane striking the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was possible only because Clark saw live television coverage of the first plane’s strike and hurried to his building’s roof, which provided a clear view of the towers.
One of the catalysts for the Spanish-American War was the mysterious explosion of the battleship USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in February 1898. There was no way to photograph the 266 US sailors who died, but images of the mast of the Maine rising above the sunken wreck brought the impact of this disaster into American homes and parlors with great power.
Sometimes photographers were assigned to document events intended to provoke war so that the pictures could be used for propaganda. For example, among the many pictures taken by Japanese airmen on December 7, 1941, is War in Hawaiian Water, which shows torpedoes approaching the American ships on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor.
RECRUITMENT, TRAINING, EMBARKATION
In the initial stages of conflict, patriotism often drives military enlistment. Photographs can capture the mix of anticipation and firm resolve in the faces of new recruits, and yet reasons for enlistment other than patriotism are more difficult to convey through photography. Many join for financial reasons—the promise of decent wages, training for future jobs, and veterans’ benefits. In contrast to traditional recruitment, warlords and insurgent armies kidnap men, women, and children to fill their ranks.
The training of troops is generally tightly regulated to meet well-established goals. Recruits must learn to depend on one another and to become members of a unit governed by tradition, rank, command structure, and rules of engagement. They must also learn how to follow orders precisely, immediately, and without question.
The final phase of recruitment is embarkation, with its teary goodbyes to family. In Damon Winter’s Flying Military Class, the interior of an enormous plane is filled to capacity with soldiers in uniform on their way to the front.
The wait before going into the battle itself is unlike the irritating logistical delays that consume the daily life of servicemen and servicewomen. As captured in the photographs in this section, the emotions of those on the brink of combat are diverse, complicated, and personal. They might be restless to see action, but that impatience is usually mixed with other concerns—the possibility of injury or death, of not having sufficient courage, or of failure to provide critical support to their buddies.
The journalist Ernie Pyle described his feelings as he waited on the deck of a transport ship the night before landing in Sicily on July 9, 1943:
Even the dizziest of us knew that before long many of us stood an excellent chance of being in this world no more. I don’t believe one of us was afraid of the physical part of dying. That isn’t the way it is. The emotion is rather one of almost desperate reluctance to give up the future. I suppose that’s splitting hairs and that it really all comes under the heading of fear. Yet somehow there is a difference …
—Ernie Pyle, Brave Men, 1945
PATROL AND TROOP MOVEMENT
This section includes images documenting patrols by all five types of US military service—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Air Force—as well as photographs of the movement of troops and supplies. Combat patrols are detachments of ground, sea, or air forces sent into hostile terrain for observation, inspection, destruction, or security, usually for several hours, but occasionally for days.
Patrol units can be as small as an individual ship or a few men or planes, and as large as squadrons of aircraft, or ships, or an entire battalion of ground troops. The units can face considerable danger, which is shared by the photographers accompanying them.
This section is devoted to images of armed confrontations between ground, air, and naval forces in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Given the slowness of mid-nineteenth-century photographic processes and the bulkiness of the necessary equipment, military action could not be photographed until the invention of faster films and cameras that did not require tripods or other supports.
By the late nineteenth century, it became technically possible to capture action with still photographs. The distribution of photographs was also transformed by the invention of the halftone process, in 1882, which allowed accurate copies to be reproduced in magazines and newspapers and disseminated to audiences eager to follow the events of war.
The invention of movies further intensified the public demand for images of war. As early as 1899, combat films were advertised as “war from the comfort of your chair.” Movies have continued to shape what the public expects to see in conflict photographs. Images of battle charges, hand-to-hand combat, interiors of submarines, and ground assaults are all staples of fictionalized war. Yet such images are virtually impossible for a still photographer to capture. Other kinds of combat action photography, though possible, are difficult and dangerous to obtain, and thus are rare.
The images included in this section are primarily those made when the photographer had at least some cover from weapons fire, while in planes, vehicles, trenches, or buildings, on ships, or behind natural obstacles or manmade fortifications.
Rescues can be as direct as the immediate action of an individual pulling someone from danger and offering aid or as complicated as operations involving entire ground, air, or sea units taking place over days or even weeks. This section focuses primarily on photographs featuring rescues of individual combatants and civilians.
Training and preparation are critical to the success of rescues. Locating those in distress complicates the process, particularly if they are caught behind enemy lines or adrift at sea. Dangers to the rescuers are also ever present. During the Vietnam War, for example, the US search and rescue forces saved 3,883 lives at the cost of the lives of 71 rescuers and 45 aircraft.
The images in this section draw largely from pictures by American photographers, who would have been aware of the public desire to see acts of heroism and humanity. The clarity and power of such photographs helped shape public perceptions of World War II that have continued to survive in fiction and in films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998).
AFTERMATH: GRIEF AND BURIALS
The aftermath of a battle begins as soon as one side is in complete possession of the battlefield. The wounded must be evacuated and given medical treatment; prisoners interrogated; the dead counted and buried, when time permits; and residual munitions and arms collected, repurposed, or destroyed.
Grief for fallen comrades pervades the aftermath of battle. This section includes Al Chang’s photograph of a grief-stricken infantryman in Korea being comforted by a fellow soldier. In contrast, another serviceman in the background shows no emotion as he uses name tags to create a report of the recently killed. Interviews with veterans suggest that such detachment is a form of self-preservation.
Military administrators understand the importance of rituals in relieving trauma experienced by troops. Whenever possible, the dead are given military funerals. Depending on the situation, temporary burials may take place on or near the battlefield, using simple wooden markers, and are moved after the war to more substantially planned cemeteries. Some countries always bury their dead in the country in which they were slain; others bring bodies home, or give families a choice.
AFTERMATH: DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY
In the wake of battle, civilian survivors as well as military personnel must confront the consequences of widespread destruction in a war zone. Through close range and bird’s-eye views, the images in this section capture a range of perspectives on the decimation of cities, homes, and infrastructure.
In his photograph dated October 29, 1917, James Frank Hurley portrays the eerie reduction of Chateau Wood near Ypres, Belgium, to denuded sticks in a shell-cratered field. In the foreground, five Australian soldiers cross a makeshift track over pools of mud.
Richard Peter made thousands of photographs of the demolished city of Dresden, which was devastated by a firestorm, resulting from Allied air raids in 1945, during which thousands died. Peter’s iconic panorama of Dresden destroyed was shot from the city hall tower, and features a sculpted male figure overlooking the city like a saint in mourning.
Christie Spengler’s heart-wrenching picture of the rubble of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after its destruction by the Khmer Rouge shows survivors sifting through rubble. The dust and smoke were so dense that day became night. Spengler describes her approach to photographing the aftermath of war: “Dead don’t interest me, only the survivors.”