War Photography and Combat Photography
War photography changed how people perceived war and how news publications reported armed conflict. While people may not fully understand the grim reality of war by reading a news article, they often immediately grasp it by viewing graphic pictures of war.
War photography has always been controversial, both in terms of the explicit nature of combat photography and potential military censorship of images. Both issues are as true to day as they were when Mathew Brady’s team first took pictures of the American Civil War during the 1860s.
War Photography History
The American Civil War marked the first time a team of photographers took pictures of war. The resulting photos of battle and death shocked the public, who were used to seeing war portrayed as a romantic, noble endeavor.
While combat photography had been around for over a century before World War I, not many pictures were taken during this war due to extensive military censorship. Combat photography during World War II prompted both patriotism and public outrage, culminating in the horrific pictures of the Nazi concentration camps.
Since the Second World War, war photos have become almost commonplace. The Vietnam War proved war photography could sway public opinion against a war.
Famous war photos from the Vietnam era include one of a little girl running as she burned from a napalm attack and one of the massacre of Vietnamese villagers by U.S. troops in My Lai.
In recent years, war photography has covered the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq. In both cases, war photos influenced both supporters and protestors of the wars.
Combat Photography Dangers
Combat photographers place themselves in great danger to capture pictures of war. Although international law protects journalists and photographers, both are still targets in a war zone.
In addition to the dangers inherent to a war zone, war photographers are sometimes deliberately targeted, abducted or executed. Evidence of this has become clear with the abduction of journalists during the Iraqi War.
War Photography Subjects
War photos cover a wide range of subjects, both on and off the battlefield. Pictures of war and combat are only one possible subject for war photography. Often combat photography shows images of the aftermath of conflict, depicting destroyed buildings and casualties.
Combat photography has been accused of desensitizing the public to scenes of violence and death. However, many war photos attempt to put a human face on war. Such war photos might include a portrait of an exhausted soldier, civilians fleeing a hot zone or the sad features of a child caught in a war zone.
While the subjects of war photography are varied in nature, pictures of prisoners of war (POWs) are considered to be off-limits to this genre. Although military groups do air photos of captured prisoners, war photos of POWs are considered an unnecessary humiliation.
Terrorist groups operating in Iraq have broadcast images of captured American military personnel to the outrage of the American public. American forces themselves came under fire for publishing a photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture.
War Photography and the Public
War photography can have powerful effects on the general public. Sometimes war photos reinforce the belief that the war is justified, stirring up feelings of patriotism and solidarity within the troops. Such pictures show a country’s forces in a positive light or depict crimes committed by the opposing forces.
However, pictures of war can have the opposite effect, turning public opinion against a military campaign. Vietnam War photos are a prime example.
A steady stream of images of American dead in Vietnam slowly turned popular sentiment against the war, as the public began to believe the war was not worth the lives of so many U.S. soldiers.
Combat photography can also prove that a country’s own soldiers are capable of atrocities, a fact that can quickly turn public sentiment against a war. A country’s public generally wants to believe in the decency of their armed forces. Combat photography that contradicts this belief, such as war photos of the massacre at My Lai, can quickly turn pubic support into public outrage.
War Photography and the Military
The power of combat photography is not lost on military organizations. The right war photos, published at the right time, can either serve as demoralizing propaganda or as a rally for public support.
The history of war photography shows that pictures of war can turn public sentiment against war. As a result, the military tends to see combat photography is a double-edged sword.
During the 20th century, various military and paramilitary groups have attempted to censor or use war photography for their own ends. In countries that value freedom of the press, censorship inevitably brings the military into conflict with journalistic freedom.
To be fair, the military must walk a tightrope: Too little censorship can put military forces in jeopardy on the battlefield or cause them to lose public support. Too much censorship causes the public and journalists to wonder what’s being hidden.
The Gulf War saw the U.S. military attempt to control almost all journalism and combat photography in the war zone. Critics believed that the military was attempting to “sanitize” the war and avoid negative reactions. Similar charges have been made during Operation Freedom in Iraq.
Combat Photography Today
War photos have often been decried as too gruesome or violent for the public. Attempts by the military (in any country) to control pictures of war have led to what some call a whitewashed portrayal of war.
War photos released of smart bombs striking buildings are not as personal as pictures of dirty, exhausted combatants. Some have claimed military-sanctioned war photos attempt to portray the image of a war without casualties.
One fact remains clear: For better or worse, combat photography influences how we see war and conflict.
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