The Photography of War: Then and Now

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Mathew Brady/NARA, via The Atlantic

The Vietnam War is often credited as the first conflict that was actually brought into the homes of American civilians. Graphic television reports, blooding images on black-and-white televisions…a lot has changed about the way we cover the war.

But this series in The Atlantic captured my attention and pointed it to the first American war where photographic images were even captured. Made me realize how, even though photography has changed, and war has changed, the images of war haven’t really changed at all.

Click through the photo tabs above and compare these photos–from the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Record Administration–of the Civil War to the photos you see everywhere in modern conflicts, in the Middle East, for example. The clothing is different, the technical details might have changed, but besides those peripherals, the photographs of war are fundamentally the same.

Erie as all hell. Is this a commentary on our human approach to photographing conflict? or is this a commentary on war? Neither or both?

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Joel says:

I’ve seen war photos that have great emotion, but other photos… don’t seem to have emotion in them. If anything, it’s the lack of emotion that brings out emotion.

What strikes me is that in some war photos everything feels very mathematical, geometric, and mechanical. Sometimes nothing feels human or organic about the pictures. This can raise its own emotions, but… when I see action shots from winter sports, family photos of a child dancing, or even nature photography of a lion cub attacking a remote controlled camera — it’s organic. It doesn’t feel set in stone or mechanical, with details laid out in perfect “thirds” precision. In war photos it’s like something froze time and instead of evoking a sense of “life has been taken”, it evokes more of “there is no life here”. Where non-war photography shows life, war photography sometimes denies the existence of life in order for us to see into something. This is double edged though — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe war photographers are betraying their coping mechanisms like Colin Farrel’s character in the film “Triage”?

Granted, war photography has changed over the years. But bear with me. Some of the example photos show dead bodies at angles that I’m not sure treat them with the humanness they once had. Sometimes this dehumanizing detracts from the full gravity of an image. Sometimes you only start to “get” just how war dehumanizes war and humanity when you’ve seen enough dehumanized images. I’m not talking about dehumanizing where there is a loss of life, but a simple denial of life ever existing.

This is just an observation of some war photography. It might be more of a psychological observation of some photos than on a whole. Maybe it’s an observation of what a war photographer was capable of showing with what they were going through at the time?

If the eye is the window to the soul, and the camera captures what a photographer is trying to show, maybe some images give us the possibility of seeing inside the photographer?

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RobyFabro says:

I wish images like these would teach us a lesson, but human history is very much a progression of more sofisticated way to destroy each other, with a few exceptions in between! Unfortunately, human evolution has been resiliant to the way we interactl among ourself! Wars are one of the things we do best and we had plenty of practice to show off! Documenting these events have a very little impact, we just have a very short memory!!

Daf says:

Put alongside photos from other times – it shows that although we have advanced in many areas – it seems not in our ability to get along with our fellow man/woman – to solve things without violence and conflict. I despair for the human race sometimes.

Moritz says:

Dear Chase,

I really like that you focus on such an interesting topic, but I have to say that war photography changed a lot during the years. Especially after the Vietnam War, where the strong media images raised the overall movement and luckyly finished the war. But after that embedded journalism was born and images about war strongly controlled. The german historian Gerhard Paul showed this in his excellent book “Bilder des Krieges, Krieg der Bilder”. Sadly enough todays photojournalists have real difficulties to show the real face of the war, instead we see symbolic pictures that represent suffering. Most of the winning photographs of the world press photo award in the last years show that. Aesthetics have changed too, into a style between meaningless stock-photographs and artistic photography in the line of Jeff Wall or Luc Delahaye.


Brian says:

I think it’s a hybrid — it’s how a commentary on how we tell and perceive stories than how we photograph, specifically. A thousand years ago people went to the theater or a pub to hear a tale, today we turn on the TV or go to a movie theater. To your point, the tools we use to tell stories are different, the mediums are different but the stories are the same stories we’ve been telling for a thousand years. Each generation wrestles with the same issues its ancestors did, anew.

Every generation think that they invented sex. Every generation tries to come to terms with violence.

I don’t know if that’s a comfort or a sad commentary on how little we’ve progressed.

josh says:

Agree with Fred above, the thing that has remained static throughout time is the emotion and what moves the photographer to snap the shutter in the first place.

fred says:

war is war the weapons may change but the suffering and the emotion captured will be the same , if you found these interesting look at the photographs from Europe in ww2 , our chosen medium ” the camera” was pushed forward in design by the nazi need to document there conquest and cleansing . i think the imagery has a similar feel because the one unchanging factor is the photographer behind the camera its his/her choice what to point the lens at and the same emotion moves them to the same situations no matter what the time period.

It´s the never ending story. At least that´s how it feels.

Derwin says:

Wow. In general it amazes me that humans by default do not have the capacity or mentality to get along with each other.
From your own siblings, neighbor, street blocks, town,county, state, country, continent and soon planets. What is wrong with us?

I feel like this time-lapsed gallery of conflict represents our human outlook for the conflicts at hand. No matter where we go throughout the world or when it takes place a casualty is a casualty and destruction is still destruction. Sort of builds on our minds as entities that need capturing. Maybe its the continuous fear and rush of the moments or the lack of control in situations but it seems the only major change is the scale that they have to represent. Im not sure what is required in order to make an impact as powerful as photographs during earlier years. Its a shame that with all the noise that comes with media today, most war and conflicts around the world are seemingly ignored. Maybe it is a little of both human and war commentary. War, as advanced as it has become, is still a simple concept at its roots with death and destruction captured. Consequently, our human curiosity could easily be after creating impact.


The photos indeed are the same, what changed was the way the information is accessible to a broader audience

IPBrian says:

I had a few discussions on this very topic this weekend…looking over a personal collection of a work colleague taken by a USMC private during the Pacific Theater in WWII…they were hard images to see and really haunting.

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