Written accounts of war go back centuries. Artists and poets have long romanticized war. Photography tells the truth, at least it did until the advent of digital. Unlike the older mediums, photography has profoundly impacted the public perception of war. It was photography that first brought the grim realities of war to the home front. It is unlikely any aspect of human endeavor has been photographed more extensively than warfare.
It should come as no surprise war photography has always been controversial. Photography shows both horror and heroism with equal impartiality. Both aspects of war photography are as intently debated today, as they were when Mathew Brady photographed the American Civil War. Photography records history, but not always with optimism.
A British army surgeon, John McCosh, is believed to have been the world's first war photographer. An amateur photographer, McCosh recorded images of the Sikh War in 1848 and the Second Burma War of 1852. Roger Fenton was the first photographer to capture images of a major conflict during the Crimean War of 1853. The American Civil War marked the first organized effort to systematically photograph a war. Mathew Brady's team of photographers shocked not only the American public, but the entire world. Brady's photographs removed romanticism from war and shattered illusions, once and for all.
The one thing missing in early war photography was action. With the photographic methods of the day, it simply was not possible. Brady was occasionally criticized for staging some of his photographs. I suspect staging was a compromise between long exposure times, and the desire to tell a greater truth. When one looks at Brady's photographs it becomes evident he never made things look better than they actually were. Strictly speaking, the work of Brady and others was war photography. Actual combat photography would have to wait for advances in technology.
By the start of the First World War, photography had made great strides. Military censorship had also made advances. Given the scope and duration of the conflict, there are surprisingly few photographs from the Great War. In the minds of the general staff, the horrors of the Western Front were best kept away from the public. By 1918 the world had grown desperate for peace. The allied leaders simply could not risk the effects graphic photographs might have on home front morale.
World War II saw great improvements in both cameras and film. Compact thirty-five millimeter cameras and fast film gave combat photographers options their forbearers could never imagine. Although military censorship was still in place, photographs from the Second World War were used effectively to manipulate both patriotism and outrage. Contrast the range of emotion between the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, and the gut wrenching images of Nazi death camps.
Of all the conflicts the American military has participated in, the war in Viet Nam was the most open. Reporters had nearly unfettered access to almost every aspect of the war. This openness was to become a source of regret for many in the US government. The iconic picture of the young girl, her clothing burned off, on fire and screaming, as she ran from a napalm attack on her village, and the pictures of the My Lai massacre had a profound effect on public opinion.
The Viet Nam experience led to a reinstitution of censorship during the gulf wars. Who the real beneficiaries of censorship are, is very much in dispute. Protecting 'order of battle' intelligence is certainly a legitimate concern for the military. The question is, at what point does censorship degenerate into pure manipulation? Do not the American people, at some point, have the right to know what it is they're paying for? Is censorship the attempt to reintroduce romance into warfare, and thus cynically exploit the patriotism of young Americans?
Combat photographers often find themselves in harms way. Although international law is supposed to protect journalists, many photographers, both military and civilian, have lost their lives in pursuit of their craft. War zones are dangerous places, and even more so for the photojournalist. Journalists have been deliberately targeted, abducted, and even executed. This problem has grown exponentially with the rise of terrorism and unconventional warfare. Terrorism does not flourish in the daylight of photography.
Combat and war photos have covered a wide rage of subjects. Some critics voice concern that pictures of war have lost their ability to shock the conscience, and have led to desensitization. Probably with that thought in mind, some photographers have made the conscious effort to put a humanizing face, on an inhuman activity. An exhausted soldier's face, children caught in a war zone, and refugees can still speak volumes about the mental and physical stress of war. Although guidelines not always respected, it is generally considered inappropriate to photograph prisoners of war.
The military has long seen the advantages of war photography. This is why all branches of the military maintain cadre's of photographers. While the military uses photography for purposes of documentation, civilian photojournalism is more problematic. Too little control risks jeopardizing military operations, while too much control invites suspicion. Exercising too much censorship, invites the charge that war is being 'sanitized' for public consumption. For example, it is far more likely that one will see pictures and video of bombs destroying buildings, than pictures of 'collateral damage.' In a sense, this is validation of photography's power to move public opinion, for one thing is clear, photography has for ever changed how war is viewed.