War Photography & Political Change

A recent article on war photography concluded that, there is still all too little evidence of photography’s ultimate ability to bring about political change.

This provocative conclusion can be understood as implicitly posing the question that, as war photography does not change things, why should we bother doing it at all? Or that, as war photography does not change things, should how photography is done be changed?

Scene during the Crimean War, 1850sThe Crimean War, the first photographed war, 1850s © Mansell Collection.

The article points to the the former and calls into question, the value of photography as a truth-telling medium that has unique power to make people accountable, acknowledge the full horror of war and effect political change.

In order to make this argument there needs to be an understanding of what constitutes evidence, and effects political change (the causal link), and also a clarification of the underlying assumptions which are choosing to hold war photography to account.

The Harvest of Death: Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, photographed July 5–6, 1863
Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 5–6, 1863, © Timothy H. O’Sullivan.

The evidence presented in this case is a lack of change. The article explains how photography was used during World War I, which the article shows displays striking similarities with how war photography is used now. A specific focus is given to the first Gulf War and Kenneth Jarecke’s charred soldier.

War photographs have shocked us by depicting the horror of dead and mutilated people. But they have also disembodied war, removed people from our view, and sanitised it by focussing on technology instead of death.

That we are still going to war, the status quo position for human civilisation, is taken as evidence that photography has failed (or changed very little).

Photography has failed to make people accountable. Photography has failed to make people acknowledge the full horror of war. And so photography has failed to effect political change to stop war.

Why has photography failed to stop war? Is this the right question to be asking of photography?

Yes, we are still going to war. Why? And what is photography’s role in that?

That photographs have the ability to effect political change seems beyond question. Perhaps this is one of the beliefs about photography that needs to be shed, but I don’t think so.

Photography is playing a central role in the current attacks against the Islamic State (Isis). That photographs are now transmitted so easily through our networks means that we are consuming images as raw data and raw propaganda in a war where the battleground is increasingly for (our) emotional turf.

Gains and losses on this turf build support for actions either for or against war. In the UK, support for military action against Isis is described as being unusually large and forged by the photographs and videos of the beheading of western hostages.

So photography can help with going to war, but it can help less, or not at all, with not going to war?

If this is true, then it points to something inherent not in photographs themselves, but rather something inherent in photography, and photography as part of a wider political-cultural system.

The belief that the role of photography is to show us a truth and that once known it will cause us to act differently en masse upon the basis of that truth is too simplistic.

It ignores the many reasons that an individual may not be moved by a war photograph, which is a long list: lack of engagement, sanitisation, disembodiment, numbness/fatigue to atrocity, won’t look, can’t look (censorship), obscurity of event, or a technical restriction.

It also ignores that war and political systems are just that, systems. Systems which are comprised of networked relationships, amplifications, and feedbacks. Systems are forced, nudged, and tipped into functioning differently. And their configuration is not always understood.

The causal link between evidence tabled and political effect is not always clear cut.

In Hearts and Minds, Christopher Sims investigates war obliquely through the U.S. Army’s travelling recruitment show. We are shown portraits of boys, all potential future soldiers, playing bloodless army produced video games. The series highlights the very way that we as spectators experience war. And as the title suggests, war is a battle for hearts and minds.

Richmond International Raceway, Richmond, Virginia #1, Hearts and Minds 2008 © Christopher Sims

Photography is being held to account for a failing to stop war because it is a truth-telling medium that has unique power. This, truth-telling, is a property of a photograph and not necessarily of photography. So to question the value of photography on this basis seems misjudged.

There is also a deeper assumption present that photography may be optional, it doesn’t change things, so why should we bother?

But we should stop taking photographs of war about as much as we should stop writing about it or talking about it, i.e. to not stop at all.