Century is considered by many to be the bloodiest in history

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The 20th century is considered by many to be the bloodiest in history. With two world wars and countless foreign conflicts, photography and the news media were the main ways the American public made sense of these great losses and violence. But as the technologies of war progressed so too did the media. The public’s ability and proclivity to make sense of past and present wars through photojournalism has changed over time due to the emergence of new technologies in photographic reproduction and dissemination. In order to conduct a survey of how photographs have been used to shape public understanding of wars, I will analyze their use in relation to World Wars I and II, The Vietnam War and the War on Terror in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I will show that the public’s media literacy, opinions regarding the objectivity of photography and the photojournalist’s involvement in the war—either imbedded, not imbedded or surveyor of the aftermath—affects the public’s perception of a given war—both as it happens and in the public memory

Many war photojournalism scholars (Campbell, 2003; Griffin, 2010; Perlmutter, 2005) have studied the mainstream assumption that particularly violent or shocking war photographs have the ability to turn policies on their head, change public opinions of the war and, ultimately, stop a military operation in its tracks—the Vietnam War stands out in most people’s mind. Each concludes that this idea is far too complex for an absolute answer. Too many other factors need to be taken into account before the true impact of a photograph can be confirmed. But all reach an agreement about photojournalism’s role in showing the public theatres of conflict; their impact varies greatly depending on government censorship, objectivity and framing. This notion that each war and body of photographs carries with it its own specific set of parameters that need to be taken into account is essential when trying to pinpoint the extent to which photojournalism shapes public opinion during conflict.

Notions of objectivity and balance, a reliance on official sources and press releases, access to theatre of actions, collaborations with subjects and beliefs in photo-realism and documentary recording are all issues that are tested by the results of wartime reporting and image-making” (Griffin, 2010, p.7).

In order to understand the reception and impact of war images, it is first necessary to understand the “conditions under which the image is produced and the institutional practices by which the image is distributed” (Griffin, p. 8). These conditions have changed drastically over time with the development of media and military technology.

Photography, since its inception, has been a major documenter of war for government reconnaissance and public consumption. Few would contest the public’s desire to be updated on the military operations of their country in order to make sense of what was going on. With the scale and complexity of wars, photography, documentaries and war reporting are ways the public makes sense of the breadth of violence and destruction during these conflicts. Iconic photographs like the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, Accidental Napalm Attack and the 9/11 Attacks have become part of the American national consciousness, a way for them to gaze back at a moment in history that exemplifies the meaning of an otherwise chaotic conflict; “Great, long drawn-out events are now recalled in collective memory by a few images, facts and phrases” (Perlmutter, 2005, p. 119).

Photography’s ability to “telescope” history (Perlmutter, p. 119) is related directly to Susan Sontag’s assertion that photographic images provide most of the knowledge people have about the past (1977, p. 209). She goes on to assert that in addition to photographs “package[ing] the world,” they seem to “invite packaging” through cropping, censorship and framing. This is precisely what Campbell, Griffin and Perlmutter warn must be taken into account when assuming the absolute power of an image of war. I would also add—in regard to the War on Terror—the 24-hour news cycle to the list of elements that problematize the war photograph’s credibility as absolute representation of a conflict.

We begin, however, with one of the bloodiest wars in history; World War I.

1] World War I – Stereography and the Keystone series

In their study entitled “Creating a Photographic Record of World War I” (2011), Andrew Mendelson and Carolyn Kitch studied the impact of stereographs after the end of the Great War and, specifically, the 1923 Keystone set of 300 cards. They assert that “World War I was explained and memorialized in American stereography after its conclusion” (p. 142). This is an interesting contrast to the way by which wars have been memorialized since. Media technologies of production, reproduction and dissemination allowed photographers in subsequent wars to report from the middle of conflict zones instead of publishing them after the fact.

Stereographs are small photographic cards that are placed in a stereoscope—a private viewing device with individual eye holes—and allow the viewer to experience a greater feeling of depth and emersion into the scene than a two-dimensional photograph. On the backs of each of the 300 cards was a text description that set the tone of the piece, praised Allied efforts, condemned German techniques or gave context to the image (Mendelson & Kitch, p. 143). The viewing experience encouraged a thoughtful, prolonged survey of each scene—a viewing experience that is arguably absent from mainstream media today.

Figure 1- “And the Trench was a Reeking Shambles”

Figure 1 – Keystone 300 – German Casuality

Figure 1 – “And the Trench was a Reeking Shambles” – German Casualty
The significance of stereographic sets such as the Keystone 300 in creating a national memory is particularly telling when considering the media censorship that was placed on photographers during the war itself. The US Army Signal Corps censored most images showing American casualties. Additionally, “all combatants were concerned about detrimental stories or pictures getting out, and thus, access to troops [for civilian journalists] and the front was severely curtailed” (p. 144). Mendelson and Kitch conclude that many of the most disastrous battles were never reported until after the war and it was not until this time that a more accurate sense of the scale of destruction and casualties was made public (p. 144).

Figure 1 – “And the trench was a reeking shambles” – German casualty
When these photographs were made public they predominantly showed times of stillness between battles. “Due to the limitations of access as well as technology, few shots revealed soldiers in combat (p.146). Figure 1 depicts a dead German soldier lying in a trench. They attempted to show the extent of the carnage that was caused by the European conflict and to show people at home the scale of the destruction. However, the authors conclude that “the stereograph did not adequately document the numbers of deaths of soldiers (p. 146). They did, however, provide a substantial catalogue of photographs that would allow the general public to glimpse into this theatre of conflict and to slowly begin to make sense of what had occurred—it is, according to Kendelson & Kitch an example of “retrospective media” that allowed for a national memory of the war.

Retrospective media, explain Mendelson & Kitch contain two types of memory: “”evidence” of the past, often in the form of documentary materials, such as photographs, and new statements about what “we” realize that past meant, a voice that suggests the audience has a shared, social understanding of the past” (p. 143). What is interesting about this notion of retrospective media and a collective understanding of a past event is that it places absolute authority onto the photographs and thus photographers that are depicting this past. I would argue that the ability of such collections to create a “national memory,” as Kitch & Mendelson say they do, is reliant on two factors: a) the nation’s willingness to trust that what they are seeing is accurate and b) a lack of other evidence of the event. The limitations of photographic technology during World War I and the inability for journalists to get to the front lines of conflict problematize the notion that the Keystone 300 are a wholly accurate representation of the war, particularly because they show only the aftermath and because they are arranged in a book format.

This idea relates back to the problems of objectivity and balance, reliance on official sources and access to theatres of action that Michael Griffin addresses as well as Susan Sontag’s notion of photographs “packaging” the world. Due to a lack of alternative media depicting the war for American citizens to consume, images such as the Keystone 300 became the absolute national memory of the war. But their framing was largely dictated by a number of limitations and restrictions in regard to technology and government censorship. Furthermore, the images were arranged using a narrative technique that, again, frames and reduces the “true” picture of the war to a set of closely framed and selected photographs. I would argue that this was made possible by a lack of alternative resources and thus relative media illiteracy compared to now and by the need to understand the conflict but the inability for the media to adequately do so.

World War II is a war that has been stuck in the global consciousness since its end – photographs, films, books and poems have saturated a collective psyche with myth, controversy, conspiracy and stories of good prevailing over evil. From a media perspective, World War II stands as perhaps the greatest war for propaganda and closely framed photographs—some of which became the most identifiable war icons in history.

2) World War II – Icons and War Propaganda

“By the break of the Second World War, it was taken for granted that events of the war could be photographically recorded” (Griffin, p. 11). This war saw the United States, Britain, Germany and Russia all use front line photography and motion picture to blur the lines between documentary and staged scenes for the purposes of national morale. Each of these countries understood the great potential of the media to rally a nation behind their cause. This is the reason so many iconic photographs (The Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, photos of Hitler and the Nazi party, etc.) and propaganda films (The Triumph of the Will) were so prevalent during the war. A strong sense of national pride and resilience was developed through the use of photography.

But this raises serious questions about the reality-value of the photograph during World War II. The Americans, according to Griffin, “so effectively managed a nuanced combination of propagandistic journalism and fiction reconstruction, using an often seamless stream of pictures in both the news and entertainment media to present idealized representations of heroic determination and military success to the American public” (p. 12).

Figure 2: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945)
Once again, like with the Keystone 300 images, the validity of the photographic documentation of World War II comes into question. But this is further problematized by the sheer volume of photographs and film historians have from the war. The number of photographers on the ground during the war has saturated the international consciousness with a collection of photographs that attempts to make sense of, again, the scale of the conflict, but which likely contains countless false or staged images.

Figure 2 – Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima
This skepticism is, of course, coming from a modern perspective of heightened media literacy which is exactly the point of this essay. The idea touted by many that photographs have the ability to shape national memory and public opinion is problematized when one considers the fact that government policy and mainstream media institution can and do frame events in a certain way as to promote a certain response.

The ability of the mainstream media and governments to manipulate the framing of World War II was exemplified through the conscious creation of iconic images, most notably “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” (figure 2).

This photograph is considered the most iconic photograph of World War II, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year it was taken by Joe Rosenthal and being personally chosen by President Roosevelt to be the symbol for the seventh war bond drive (Hariman and Lucaites, 2007). The photograph was published within seventeen and a half hours of being taken and was subsequently splashed all over the mainstream media, instantly becoming an icon of the war. It’s not hard to see why this photograph would garner such propagandistic interest from the government and Associated Press – it epitomizes the image of American victory, hard work and unity. It is considered one of the most iconic and most reproduced images of all time (Hariman and Lucaites).

What is interesting about this photograph from the perspective of this essay is the speed by which the photograph became an icon. The technology required for Rosenthal to take this photograph in the first place and then to wire it to editors in Guam who then relayed it back to the United States which resulted in the explosion of the photograph across the country is a very telling example of how technology and framing affect the way war photographs can influence the public’s understanding of the war. Michael Griffin, in analyzing Hariman and Lucaites’ book “No Caption Needed” states that the two authors argue that “the making of an icon ‘can take time’ and that its formation has more to do with tapping into ‘climates of feeling’ than with the representation of historical evidence” (p. 17). Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima bypassed this wait period because, I would argue, the media and government identified it as a photograph that would tap into the public’s “climate of feeling” and thus shed positive light on the nation’s war effort.

The impact of this photograph does not stem from its status as a “true” window into the war that altered the course of the nation’s war effort but was rather created and enforced by the media and government of the time. The image was used to tap into the feelings of nationalism that were created through propaganda and was produced and disseminated by harnessing the media technologies of the day. I would argue that there is nothing inherent to the photograph that elicits the kind of mass response it received but rather the response it received was dependent on technologies of mass dissemination and the government pushing it the forefront of the visual wartime media.

This notion of photojournalism as being reliant on government and mainstream media restriction is particularly relevant when considering its mythical status during the Vietnam War. The assertion that photojournalists and iconic Vietnam photos effectively turned to tides of the war and shifted public opinion against the war is a frequently quoted assumption, particularly amongst veterans of the anti-war movement. Once again, the actual impact of these photographs is not so black and white.

The Vietnam War, Hippies and the “Golden Age” of Photojournalism

The canon of Vietnam War photographs has been mythologized as being the most open, and “true” documentations of a war since the dawn of photographic technology. This is largely attributed to the freedom that photojournalists had to move about Vietnam during the conflict and the opening up of the mainstream press to images of extreme violence and military oppression. Photographs such as the Saigon execution, self-immolation monk and Accidental Napalm Attack have all been touted as seminal photos that changed the course of the war. But, as numerous studies about photojournalism during the Vietnam have pointed out, this was not really the case. There seems to be many more factors besides just these photographs that scholars attribute to the decline in public support towards the final years of the war.

Figure 3 – Accidental Napalm Attack by Nick Ut (1972)

Figure 3 – Accidental Napalm Attack
The Vietnam War is often labelled as the first war to be shown to the American people on television directly in their living rooms. This new technology of news dissemination, in theory, allowed for photojournalists to transmit what they were seeing directly to the American people in order to let them decide how to make sense of the war. The volume of freely roaming photojournalists in Vietnam during the occupation as well as the camera technology available to them meant that the quality and volume of images collected was unparalleled by any war before it (Perlmutter, p. 113). The state-of-the-art Nikon F SLR camera was the tool of choice for many photojournalists in Vietnam. It was a light-weight, coloured camera that allowed them to always be on the front line of combat and get the clear picture—a far cry from the stereograph technology used during World War I. The combination of this camera technology and the technologies of disseminating these photos placed great value on the “truth” of the Vietnam photographs, meaning that many have considered them to be absolute representations of the war itself.

I would like to argue that the new technology of media production and dissemination used during the Vietnam War did not live up to the public’s perception of its democratizing ability. Rather, the sheer volume of photographs that inundated the American public with imagery of the war only gave the illusion of transparency when there was still a closely regulated government and media process dictating what was and what was not shown to the public. I consider the Vietnam War to be a period when technology gave the illusion of transparency because of the regulated dissemination platform and freedom of press movement in the conflict theatre but one that failed to live up to the myth.

In order to do this I turn my attention to Guy Westwell’s critique of the myth surrounding Nick Ut’s photograph “Accidental Napalm Attack” depicting Kim Phuc following a South Vietnamese napalm attack on Trang Bang (figure 3). Westwell is particularly interested in how the gatekeeping process at the Associated Press, NBC and The New York Times altered the appearance of this photograph to fit with their own view of how it should be presented. “Any understanding of the inception of Accidental Napalm Attack must be grounded in the work of these news agencies as they selected and deselected images in response to the demands of a competitive news market” (2011, p. 408).

Westwell then goes on to outline what happened to Ut’s photograph after he delivered it to the Associated Press office in Saigon. “This negative was different from the one that is now an iconic image of the war,” says Westwell (p. 409). This original print, he goes on to explain, was composed in the following way: “in the immediate left foreground there is a girl with arms outstretched; to the right, two more clothed children running hand in hand; behind the children and to the right are six soldiers, also running, and a photographer manipulating his camera” (p. 409). The original photo was also in color, not black and white. Westwell explains that before being sent off to major news institutions around the United States, alteration such as removing shadow from the girl’s groin that looked like pubic hair [it was against policy to show full frontal nudity of an adult] and obscured portions of the photograph that depicted injuries in too much detail. The photograph was essentially screened and slightly altered to meet mainstream regulations back home.

Figure 4 – Saigon Execution (1968)
The implication of this manipulation, says Westwell (emphasis in original) is “the gatekeeping decisions and technical manipulation of the photograph, in effect, determine the photograph’s central subject in advance as the story of a young innocent girl burnt by napalm” (p. 410). The myth that this picture tore into the mainstream media as a true, unbiased window into the atrocities happening in Vietnam and shocked the public to the very core because it blew the lid open on what was transpiring does not appear to be the case here. Not only was this photograph specifically chosen by the Associated Press as a photo to be wired around the United States it was also doctored and prepped as a narrative about the little girl. This is not of course to take away from what is being shown in the image. The point is rather that technologies of production and dissemination can and do manipulate what photos make it to the mainstream media and how they are shown once they’re there; this is a far cry from the absolute transparency myth associated with the Vietnam War.

The second myth of Vietnam War photography is that they contained within them incredible power to shift public opinion and influence government policy. I will touch on this briefly, citing David Perlmutter’s article called “Photojournalism and Foreign Affairs”. Perlmutter discusses the Saigon execution photograph taken during the Vietcong Tet offensive in 1968 (figure 4). “Hundreds of politicians, reporters, editors and scholars have asserted at the time and through today, that “this was the picture that lost the war” […]” (p. 115).

But Perlmutter goes on to problematize this assertion, stating that “almost all American distaste for the war was due to losses in American lives and the interminable length of conflict” (p. 116). Both him and Michael Sherer in a study entitled “Vietnam War Photos and Public Opinion” hold that the American public’s distaste for the war resulted from a gradual shift toward the tail end of the conflict that resulted from growing weariness with the length of the conflict, anger over the American lives lost and a loss of faith in the country’s leadership. The findings in Sherer’s report state that rather than mainstream media images being a catalyst for changing public opinion [as a whole, not taking into account the counterculture that was against the war far prior to 1968], the media reflected the public’s negative sentiment through an increase of negative photographs depicting death and violence (Sherer, 1989, pp. 394, 530) .

In regard to the distrust of leadership as being one of the factors in shifting public opinion about the war, Perlmutter states that “when there is a crisis in foreign policy, political scientists have long noted a rallying boost in public opinion for the commander in chief” (p. 116). But, he goes on to say, “that surge only lasts in the commander leads”. The Tet offensive came at a time when President Johnson was depressed, facing criticism from his own administration and largely out of the public eye. Perlmutter concludes that “the Saigon execution picture, thus, changed few minds; failure of leadership was the more powerful foreign affairs catalyst” (p. 116).

I would argue that the reason for Vietnam War photography having the myth that it does is related to the physical and technological freedom that journalists were granted during the conflict. The ability for photojournalists to take color photographs from the thick of the war and to transmit them back home created the illusion of absolute transparency that went along with the countercultural ideal of breaking down the shackles of authority. But this was not really the case when one considers that all of these photographs were closely filtered through the mainstream media. Technology, during this war, acted as an illusory vessel for transparency but one that ultimately failed to live up to its own myth.

Regardless of whether or not this myth is true, Michael Griffin acknowledges the government’s reluctance to allow such a free moving press to operate in future military operations. “Since the 1970s, successive US government and US military command have conscientiously worked to avoid a repeat of the kind of media access and exposure they feel was detrimental in Vietnam” (2010, p. 24). This seems to have been the United States’ approach to the War on Terror.

The War on Terror – From Bush to Obama

The media’s role in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has its roots in the techniques taken by the United States during the invasion of Panama in 1989. The government effectively shut down and closely monitored what coverage escaped from the operations in Panama and made it into the mainstream media. This allowed them effectively to control how they conducted the operation without domestic pressures caused by media coverage (Griffin, 2010). “The lesson for the future government policy was that tightly restricting press access was a successful strategy for maintaining government influence over media coverage,” says Griffith (p. 25). This same technique was used in Grenada and during Desert Storm.

Griffin likens the coverage of the Iraq invasion of 2003 with the Desert Storm operation saying that in each case “the US government, particularly political interest, defense industries and commercial media organizations were able to cooperatively produce a kind of “Gulf War Movie” that was free of contradictory images and explicitly promoted American hegemony, the superiority of Western technology and a controlled sense of global dominance” (p. 30).

The technology that was available during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of course far exceeded what was available during any other war in history. In addition to the production technologies being far superior with digital capabilities, the internet has created a platform of horizontal information dissemination that can transmit real time images around the world in a matter of seconds. But yet the mainstream media in the United States still broadcasted what Griffin identifies as the three leading photographic genres: “the arsenal, troops, political leaders” (p. 31).

A possible reason for this is the fact that reporters with mainstream organizations were embedded by the Coalition Media Centre with military units so that “those from the front line [would] provide images and stories from an unavoidably narrow perspective” (Campbell, p. 63). In addition to this, the United States established the CMC headquarters to ensure the control of media personnel inside Iraq. While the embedded journalists were given their narrow perspective in the field, “the journalists at CMC were given what was said to be the broad overview but in effect only amplified the narrow perspective amplified by the Pentagon and its partners” (Campbell, p. 63).

This micro management of the in-country press during the Iraq War is very interesting in the context of this essay. Throughout the war, the media was privileged to the most advanced technology in history to report on what was “really” going on in Iraq. But the governmental policies and management by the US effectively censored what the press was reporting on but made it look like the war was all access. The television environment in the United States right now is unlike anything we have seen before; with 24-hour news cycles and technology that would put NORAD to shame, the American public was still effectively sold the same doctored footage from a war zone but with the ever heightened illusion that it was providing absolute transparency. David Campbell says that this “meant the military could be confident journalists would producer maximum content with minimum insight” (p. 63).

Campbell does, however, address the presence of independent photographers and cameramen who worked in the Iraq and Afghanistan warzones and acknowledges that they were producing footage that greatly stepped outside the “three genre” approach to reporting the war in favor of the real thing. But, he says, “the problem is that the media industry itself operates in terms of codes and norms that mesh with the military’s restrictions and prevent the release of such images by invoking conceptions of taste and decency” (p.64).

But these photographs were inevitably being leaked onto the internet at to independent news stations. Unlike in previous wars when it could takes years for these photographs to be released for public critique, internet technology allowed for a more open coverage of the war, just not in the mainstream media itself. What is interesting about this is that this independent coverage of the war, outside of the mainstream media, has meant that dialogue about the failings of the major news organization’s coverage of the War on Terror has been allowed to flourish. This is indicative of the new digital and internet age that we live in – despite measures taken by the government to suppress the coverage of war in the mainstream media, there are simply too many platforms now for images that transgress this regulation to come to the fore.

This theme of technology and the United States usage of it in wartime operations as well as the media coverage of it also comes up in one of the newest iconic photographs—the Situation Room photograph during the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 (figure 5).

Figure 5 – The Situation Room; The killing of Bin Laden (2011)
Liam Kennedy, in his article entitled “Seeing is Believing: On Photography and the War on Terror” describes the photograph as a depiction of “the state […] witnessing the execution of its own violent power. This form of state violence is enacted as shock and awe, as high technological intervention in foreign terrains” (2012, p. 266). The notion of looking at a photograph of a room full of people watching an act of war on a second screen is, perhaps, the epitome of our media technology. Not only is the United States military able to surgically carry out missions from across the world using technology, we are also able to see what they look like as they do it. For us, it’s a kind of double displacement from the act itself; because we have never actually seen the body of Osama Bin Laden, we are given this iconic photograph in its stead as “proof” that it did indeed happen.

The digital age has also brought into fruition further skepticism about photographs that, I have argued in this essay, was not around when the stereographs of World War I were released. Increased media literacy in today’s society has meant that many people are skeptical about what they see. Whether or not this new digital age means future wars will be covered and watched differently is of course yet to be seen. But digital technology and internet platforms that can bypass the mainstream media have already created an interesting relationship between traditional and independent war coverage.

David Campbell states that “the digital age has, however, had an important impact on contemporary debates about photography. With the increased capacity for pictorial manipulation arising from the use of digital cameras and computer imaging, public laments about the associated loss of authority are truth and common” (p. 65).

This is indeed true—the ease by which anyone can manipulate photographs poses a serious problem for ensuring accurate war photography. But, as I have attempted to show in this essay, there is not necessarily such thing as an absolute, transparent representation of a war. There are far too many factors that influence the cannon of photographs from a given war, not the least of which is government suppression and mainstream media’s framing and regulation But it does seem possible that horizontal dissemination of photographs as opposed to the traditional top-down approach may see greater accuracy and breadth of photographic content from wars. What is clear, however, is that media technology has played an integral role in how wars have been covered since the dawn of photography. The technology used in covering a war affects the type of coverage it receives and, thus, that shapes how the public will view the war both during the conflict and after its conclusion.

Works Cited

Campbell, David. "Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflection on the Imaging of War." Review of International Studies 29 (2003): 57-73.

Griffin, Michael. "Media Images of War." Media, War & Conflict 3.1 (2010): 7-41.

Hariman, Robert, and John Louis. Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and

Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007. 

Kennedy, Liam. "Seeing Is Believing: On Photography and the War on Terror." Public Culture 24.2 (2012): 261-81.

Mendelson, Andrew L. "Creating a Photographic Record of World War I." Journalism History 37.3 (2011): 142-50. 

Perlmutter, David D. "Photojournalism and Foreign Affairs." Orbis 49.1 (2005): 109-22. 

Sherer, Michael D. "Vietnam War Photos and Public Opinion." Journalism Quarterly 66.2 (1989): 391-95. 

Sontag, Susan. "In Plato's Cave." On Photography 3.24 (1989): 3-24.

Westwell, Guy. "Accidental Napalm Attack and Hegemonic Visions of America's War in Vietnam." Critical

Studies in Media Communication 28.5 (2011): 407-23.

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