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What is War Photography, Really?

written by: Chrissy Dean•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/20/2011

An overview of the history and progression of war photography, it's purpose, impact, and what it means to be a war photographer.

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    What is War Photography?

    War photography is the pursuit of capturing images of armed combat and what life is really like during war and in war-torn countries. It is meant to portray the tragedy and triumph of war in all its aspects.

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    When and Where Did War Photography End?

    The first war photographer was anonymous and took photos during the Mexican–American War of 1847. This person is believed to be American, and used the technology available at the time to capture war images in dangerous territory. The problem with the photograph technology back then was it used silver-coated copper plates to develop photos, which took several minutes to process, and was incapable of capturing movement.

    The effort did not go to waste, however, and war photography grew as a practice and evolved with technology. Pictures were of posing officers, regimens, scenery, and buildings during war time. In the late 1800s, some photographers even recreated scenes of war to try and capture the movement in a more controlled environment.

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    Photojournalism and Robert Capa

    The first years of war photography were very difficult and dangerous. Equipment was big, heavy, and bulky and not easy to carry around. Although the photographers were non-combatant, they still made targets of themselves with the camera setups.

    The term photojournalist was coined in the 1980s, and continues to be a popular field. Throughout the 1900s, photojournalists covered all major conflicts in the world, they continue to do so today. Many have lost their lives in their quest.

    Falling Soldier One very famous war photographer was Robert Capa. Robert shot photos of the Spanish Civil War, the D-Day landings, fall of Paris, and many conflicts in the 1950's. He was killed by a landmine in Indochina in May 1954. One of his most famous photos is “Falling Soldier".

    When asked what life is like for a war photographer, Capa replied "It's not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around one."

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    Henri Cartier-Bresson

    bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered to be the father of true photojournalism and master of candid photos. He was a French photographer who was born in 1908, and died in 2004. He covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II, where his most famous photos were shot. He also covered the Chinese Civil War and many other conflicts around the world until his retirement in 1970.

    To explain a bit of how he felt about photography, Cartier-Bresson said "Memory is very important, the memory of each photo taken, flowing at the same speed as the event. During the work, you have to be sure that you haven't left any holes, that you've captured everything, because afterwards it will be too late."

    After his retirement, he said he rarely used his camera again except for occasional portraits, and spent most of his days drawing and painting. Drawing and painting were at the heart of his photography, and he loved the act of creating.

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    Philip Jones Griffiths

    griffiths Another famous war photographer was Philip Jones Griffiths, who is best known for his coverage of the Vietnam war. Griffiths was fortunate enough not to be killed on the battlefield, but died of cancer in March 2008. Hired as a freelance photographer, he began his coverage of the Vietnam War in 1966. Many of the recognizable and haunting images of this war can be attributed to Griffiths, as he showed us the tragedy of the war. He is the author of Vietnam, Inc., Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Vietnam, and Philip Jones Griffiths: Vietnam At Peace.griffiths2 

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    The Impact of War Photography

    soldier 

    The impact of war photography tends to be more emotional throughout nations, and difficult to measure. It eliminates the possibility of naivety, and forces us to acknowledge how terrible war truly is. This causes more general protest to war acts, and possibly makes countries and their people less likely to jump at war as a solution. However, it is also a testament to the ability for humans to survive and have hope in the worst of times. While the vast majority of war photography is of a terribly sad or violent nature, some photos have managed to capture joy in spite of adversity.

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    The Dangers of Being a War Photographer

    While today's war photography equipment is less bulky and easier to carry, the job is still very dangerous. Being a non-combatant does not stop someone from stepping on landmines, being shot at, or bombed. Protections provided by international conventions of warfare do not guarantee the photographer won't be a target or prevent accidents from happening. For this reason, many war photographers do make a life-long career in this field. Carol Ann Duffy's "War Photographer" can give some poetic insight of the life.

    This danger also makes war photography images more powerful, though, and tend to instill respect as well as emotion in the viewer. While there can be fame for the war photographer, there is much sacrifice, and pay may not be as lucrative as one would hope. These reasons are not why anyone should pursue this career. War photography is about displaying truth, chronicling life, and capturing emotion in times and places of unrest. It can be a very stressful life, and should not be taken lightly.