On the Battlefield

This image depicts the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. With this image, Felice Beato possibly produced the first-ever photographic images of corpses. Photograph/Felice Beato. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

This image depicts the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. With this image, Felice Beato possibly produced the first-ever photographic images of corpses. Photograph/Felice Beato. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Supriya Joshi presents war photographers through history who have risked their lives to present stark and iconic images from the battlefield.

Ever since its invention, the camera has been used to document events and occurrences around the world. One of the most important impacts of photography on history has been to capture images from war-torn sites around the world. Could you imagine war records having the same impact without the works of photographers like Felice Beato, Robert Capa, Nick Ut and Eddie Adams, among others?

War photographers throughout history have been risking their lives to present the horrors of war through their photographs, as well as making poignant statements with their work. Their keen interest in showing the world the terrible aspects of war has played a huge role in rethinking people’s opinions on war and new policies being implemented.

The first known war photographer is Carol Popp de Szathmàri.

Beginnings in Crimean War
It all began in the 1800s, where daguerreotype, calotypes and wet-plate were the popular means of photography. It was around this time that the Crimean War began, where several European countries were fighting for supremacy. The first known war photographer is Carol Popp de Szathmàri, who took photos of various officers in 1853 and of war scenes in Bulgaria during this war.

Roger Fenton, a British photographer, was also sent on assignment to cover this war. He covered the Crimean War extensively in 1855. He travelled the war torn area with a few assistants and bulky equipment. He faced several difficulties on the field, including a cholera infection and broken ribs. His photography was also limited due to the technology of the time and his immobile equipment. Despite all this, Fenton was able to shoot about 350 photographs, which have now become a benchmark in war photography.

In America, photographer Mathew Brady was documenting the Civil War by setting up his photographic studio right on the battlefield. Once while taking a photograph, he got so close to the action that he narrowly avoided capture. He then employed twenty-three men and gave them a portable darkroom to go out and photograph scenes from the Civil War. This became the first instance where a team had gone to photograph scenes from battle.

On this side of the Atlantic, Italian-British Felice Beato was covering the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He travelled around several North Indian states, and documented images of the destruction and loss of life caused by the rebellion. It is also believed that during this period, he produced possibly the first-ever photographic images of corpses.

Staging Speculations
Early photographers found it hard to shoot battle scenes because of their camera’s bulkiness and the inability to record movement. Most photographers, therefore, began to recreate and stage battle sequences. When the Spanish civil war broke out in the 1900s; several photographers went to cover it, including Robert Capa and David Seymour.

Capa shot a photograph of a soldier falling to his death after being shot on the field. Once this photo was published, it created shockwaves around the globe. The photograph was named ‘The Falling Soldier’, and has become an iconic image of the war. However, the authenticity of the image has been widely speculated by several people. Several claimed the photograph to be staged and questioned its legitimacy. Capa neither denied nor accepted the allegation, and the world may never know the truth behind the image.

World War II Photographers
With the advent of film photography, war photographers found it a lot easier to shoot battle sequences. Because of the compact equipment and faster films, photographers could be more mobile and discreet on the field, and instantaneously shoot their subject. Photographers from World War II and the Vietnam War have produced some of the most iconic photographs.

Joe Rosenthal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American photographer’s photo titled ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’ has widely been credited as the most iconic photograph from World War II. Rosenthal had received news that American soldiers were raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima (Japan). Rosenthal hurried in the direction with his bulky press camera and set up his equipment while standing on a sandbag and piles of stones. He then managed to capture the iconic image, making the photograph a symbol of victory, brotherhood and unity.

Joe Rosenthal’s photo titled ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’ has widely been credited as the most iconic photograph from World War II.

War Photography Now
Ever-changing technology and advancements in cameras have changed a war photographer’s technique drastically. They can shoot battle sequences discreetly and at a distance from the line of fire, thanks to telephoto lenses. With digital photography, they can send their pictures instantly to editors, without waiting for the negatives to develop.

Some of the recent war photographers are James Nachtwey, who has been awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal five times; Tim Page, who covered the Vietnam war extensively; Gary Knight who has been covering conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and other war-torn countries to document war crimes and crimes against humanity; Zoriah Miller, who’s controversial Iraq war photographs are widely discussed and have brought to light the issue of wartime censorship, amongst others.

However, photographers have suffered severe consequences in recent history. Photographers are at much at risk of death and injury as the soldiers themselves. Recently, more and more photographers are targeted by terrorists, and being executed or used as hostages. In spite of an ever-present threat to their lives, war photographers still continue to bring the world haunting images from areas affected by war.

Events on Field

  • Robert Capa had once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” In a sad twist of fate, Capa died in 1954 after he stepped on a landmine while covering the First Indochina War. His left leg was blown apart and he had injuries on his chest. He died with his camera in hand.
  • In 2003, photographer James Nachtwey was injured in an attack on his convoy while serving as a TIME correspondent in Baghdad. An insurgent threw a grenade into the convoy carrying Nachtwey and other correspondents, injuring several in the vehicle. However, Nachtwey still managed to take photographs of the incident before he passed out. He has since made a full recovery.
  • Photographer Tim Page has been injured in action four times. The first time was in 1965 in Chu Lai, where he was injured by shrapnel in the legs and stomach. The second time was in 1966 at Da Nang, where he was struck by shrapnel again, this time to his head, back and arms.  The third time, he was mistaken for a Viet Cong soldier, and was left adrift at sea with over two hundred wounds. Lastly, in 1969, a landmine explosion sent a 2-inch piece of shrapnel into Page’s head. This list of injuries led his colleagues to joke that he would never make it to 23 years of age. He is alive and photographing till date.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Better Photography.

Iconic War Photographs Through the Ages

Tags: Supriya Joshi, February 2011, War Photography, robert capa, history, Françoise Demulder, joe rosenthal, eddie adams, nick ut, crimean war, world war two