Most technological advances that are of potential use in war are typically tested in prior situations. Photography, on the other hand, has historically used the battlefield itself as testing ground to break into other social and aesthetic potentials. That is not to say that innovation in the lab or factory didn’t go a long way in enabling war photography. The portable Kodak by George Eastman and the Leica 35mm are the defining differences between the choreographed images of aftermaths in the American Civil War to the high-adrenaline images of action in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Rather, it is to assert that the issues around war photography have been prescient in determining later discourse around the medium and that the setting provided a litmus as to how photography possibly can and perhaps should be practiced. In some ways, war also drove the economics of photography. Sales for “Vest Pocket Kodak” increased from 5500 in 1914 to 28000 in 1915 as it was advertised as the soldier’s camera. The business of sight through mechanized vision is still at the forefront of militaristic research and that in turn, has enabled photo imaging to expand from the confines of human held cameras to satellites, drones, night vision, surveillance systems and other mechanisms.
Photographing wars in the first half of the 20th century set a specific template that persisted for years to follow. Typically male photographers were allowed access to the frontlines under the supervision and guidance of the state. Photography was practiced short form, as rolls of film, military censorship permitting, flitted between continents to be published in human interest magazines such as Life, Vu and Look. Taking cues from journalism, war photography attempted objectivity, especially as an indexical adherence to the event itself was built into the medium. Painting, even of historical events can only be retrospective. The seeing machine, indiscriminate in its power to describe the world, captures reality as it is in that very moment.
Roland Barthes refers to this brute descriptive opticality as the violence of the photograph, “not because it shows violent things but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.” This assertion by Barthes is a remarkably understated paradox. Directly, his statement seems to speak for the indexical referent and thus the objectivity of the photograph. However, he is also admitting that the forceful occupation of sight can displace memory and reify instead a singular version of reality. What we remember most forcefully is the split second of the iconic image. It is impossible to think of the Spanish Civil War today without thinking of Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier, pictured at the very moment of his death. However, by extending the split second into a lasting memory, we permit ourselves to overcome the dizzying complexity of war. Photography becomes amnesia. Because a photograph doesn’t allow us to locate ourselves outside its selective frame, it is always calling attention to its own periphery and exhaustion. It is impossible to think of Capa’s Falling Soldier today without thinking about the controversies surrounding its authenticity that have come to light since 1975. Was Capa actually at the frontlines? Who is the militiaman in the photograph? Was he directed by Capa at all to perform for the camera? Do answers to any of the questions above change how we think about the Spanish Civil War in particular or war in general? If not because the photograph doesn’t reveal any stable truths, then what is the value of the iconic image based on? The photograph, in its subjective, interpretative and incomplete rendering of the world can collapse context as often as it can expand it. Perhaps, this very position unique to photography, between the shifting coordinates of image (particular, autonomous, mysterious) and text (broad, historicised, interconnected) is what makes it appealing during war.
World War II was perceived as justified and necessary against the horrors of fascism and Nazism. It allowed the photographer on the Allies frontline to conceive of their job as morally upstanding. Despite the fact that the documentary impulse in journalistic war photography conforms to some industry wide ethical standards that ban participation, intervention, staging and post-manipulation, the photojournalist as a figure sympathetic to the “good” side is still abound, even in conflicts with murky ideological waters. One can question, of course, the assumption of objectivity in the first place and the nature of the transaction that takes place between a photographer and subject during war but I want to focus on the preconceived service of the photographer for Greater Good. This creates the “illusion of consensus” as Susan Sontag calls it. A photograph is made to be viewed by a disembodied universal We, and it depicts the misery of a universal We. Indistinguishable humanity is suffering and indistinguishable humanity stands witness. War is devastating but also generic. Specifics of the conflicts are undermined and depoliticized to further a sentimental appeal for ahistoric universality. Pictures of injustice elsewhere are consumed by remote viewers as a kind of penance. Seeing stands in for confrontation. The pictures are shocking and thus the viewer is reaffirmed of their own humanity, subsuming the need to investigate the complicit nature of their own power.
“Images come to you. You do not go to them. The days of pilgrimage are over.,” John Berger famously declared, referring to the ease of travel for mechanical reproduction. I will go on to suggest that for a significant period in the history of war photography, days of pilgrimage were in fact not over. Only, the pilgrimage was performed for many viewers by the singular heroic photographer. The photographic spoils of these quests were beheld with an odd reverence reserved for great pain, not unlike the kind that believers hold for images of Christ. Perhaps it was not directly felt that the Other was suffering on one’s behalf but a compulsory bravery continues to be attached to loss depicted in photographs. The violence may be senseless but this was precisely what allowed the subjects to ascend a rung on the scale of humanity. It’s as if the humanity of the diverse populations of the world wasn’t fully proven until photos of their anguish were seen by some publics. The human face of power is kindness but of powerlessness, it is misfortune.
However, the past few decades have been transformative for the practice of photography. The advent of digital imaging, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and the instantaneous sharing of pictures through the Internet democratized photography. No longer did one require specialist training or be commissioned by a state or agency to take a picture. One simply had to be present.
It is thus likely that the person wielding the camera is already a participant in action. Far from a desire to minimize the presence of the photographer, there is a hyper self-awareness facilitated by front facing cameras, selfie sticks and a desire to communicate through the broadcast address. This creates a new kind of networked intimacy, a common. Fragile and threatened as it may be, this common doesn’t correspond to nation-state or geographically proximal constituencies.
In this situation, Hito Steyerl mounts a defense of the “poor image”, suggesting that, “apart from resolution and exchange value, one might imagine another form of value defined by velocity, intensity, and spread.” It is difficult to imagine the infectiousness of the Arab Spring without scores of citizen photojournalists who circumvented the tight grip of the state on mainstream media with low-res and high-speed photography of their own.
Previously, Jean Baudrillard had asserted, “The Gulf War did not take place” in response to Western coverage of the events. A war where American forces mostly did not engage in direct combat was made to appear as if of great gravity and yet quite bloodless. Baudrillard states that the site of the war was actually the screen to which viewers were held like hostages in a simulacrum. A similar observation can be made of recent populist marches in Pakistan buoyed on flimsy rhetorical premises, and given life by incessant live broadcast, aerial drone imagery, and the illusion of impending doom. However, the Arab Spring split the screen open. The multiplicity and urgency of the photographs, against the grain of repressive states, made a political act of taking a picture.
Hito-Steyerl, however, also notes that viral transmission of images results in losses and edits, not only in terms of the quality of the image but also its content. We know that images of causality from one war have often been repurposed for political gain in other conflicts, engendering a paranoia and suspicion in the photograph. Similarly, she also admits that this powerful proliferation of images is not always used in the service of progressive ideals. The ISIS, for example, is Internet savvy and rushes to upload graphic photographic and video evidence of crimes it commits.
Even though cell-phone photographic representation holds immense power to convince and convene publics, it doesn’t always have the same level of success in formal justice systems. Many of the policemen involved in the deaths of unarmed black people in the US have not been held accountable despite video and photographic evidence. In fact, the accused were not even indicted in the cases of Eric Garner (suffocated in a chokehold for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally), Tamir Rice (12 year old boy fatally shot for playing with a toy gun), Sandra Bland (found dead in her cell after she was arrested for allegedly failing to use a turn signal) and others. Similarly, the state of Pakistan categorically denies its involvement with extrajudicial abductions of missing persons even as relatives hold photographs, videos and oral accounts to the contrary. These instances are a caution against both the presumed evidentiary status of a lens-based artifact and the political potential of representation: Firstly, photography does not always speak for itself. Secondly, an affective image of injustice upon a kind of body doesn’t intrinsically overturn power. In fact, representation seems to be the necessary burden of some kinds of bodies more than others. To be the subject of a conflict, does one have to become a kind of compulsory observer and participant who must submit the image of their bodily humiliation to institutional scrutiny?
Ariella Azouley believes that the inadequacy to transform the world lies not with photographs but with viewers. In her book, The Civil Contract of Photography Azouley argues that the privilege of extended sight as enabled by the mobility of the camera comes with a responsibility to the shared citizenry of this new visual field. Azouley thinks that a photograph is a multi-way encounter between the subject, the photographer, the machine and us as the future viewers. None of these actors are sovereign. She writes that the act of truly looking at a photograph is a civic skill that must be learnt in order to resist the violence a photograph depicts. Photographs are not closed-off events from the past but are volatile and fertile. At any given moment one can re-encounter the event in the picture and in this recognition lies re-cognition. To assume that the unfolding of history was inevitable and is sealed after the taking of the photograph is to mute the subject of the picture. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that despite the contesting positions of photography during conflict, what we fear most is the idea that we can be stripped of our ability to speak of events in a war with no photographs.