War photography - a window to the past


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Photography plays a crucial role in capturing war in a way that no other medium can. Photographers work under difficult conditions to record the realities of war – often risking their lives to do so.

For many people who have not experienced war firsthand, their perception of war is often based on images taken by war photographers. Photography is one of the most powerful ways to bridge the gap between the home-front and the battlefields, the past and the present.

During the last century, war photographers captured images that explore the range of wartime experiences from the ruined landscape and destroyed buildings of the front lines to the suffering endured by service personnel, the impact of war on civilians, and life on the home front. 

A group of soldiers walking accross the destroyed forest in the battlefield.

A photograph taken by Frank Hurley of five Australian soldiers passing along a duckboard track along the battlegrounds of the Ypres salient (AWM E01220).

While photography is seen as a way to objectively capture a moment in its pure truth and clarity, there have always been ways to alter photographs to convey a certain idea. War photographers have sometimes been found guilty of staging their photographs or altering them.

The interpretation of war is deeply personal and subjective, so every writer, artist, journalist or photographer will bring their own perspectives to the task.

An Australian digger in uniform helping a wounded soldier wearing a bandage over his eyes across a river

A film still from Oscar Award winning photographer Damien Parer's "Assault on Salamaua" filmed in New Guinea (AWM 127971).

Changes in camera technology and photographic processes have profoundly influenced war photography. Innovations such as: shorter exposure times, portable cameras, improved lenses, the move from film to digital and from black and white to colour have transformed the way conflicts are photographed.

To Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian of the First World War, photographs were “sacred records” that would allow “future generations to see forever the plain, simple truth”.

Drawing a distinction between press photography (often being staged), and historical photographs (documenting the war authentically), Bean grew increasingly concerned at the lack of authentic photographs taken by British official photographers. On 12 May 1916 he wrote:

"Press photography in this war is such a construction of flimsy fake… That is the last thing a historian wants to build on."

The photograph below was stated by Charles Bean to have been staged by the photographer Ernest Brooks. It was a re-enactment of an event frequently seen. The man carrying his comrade was identified in the 1920s as Lance 1353 Corporal Clarence Simpson Elliott, C Company, 2nd Battalion. He has also been identified as 913 Private Frederick John Schenscher, 27th Battalion, who was awarded a DCM for rescuing wounded in France in 1917.

A smiling Australian soldier carrying another soldier on his shoulders down a ridge overlooking a bay in Gallipoli

(AWM G00599)

Private cameras were banned by British armies on the Western Front, and throughout 1916 Bean repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought permission to take his own photographs. He commissioned photographers and polar adventurers Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins as official photographers to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Two men in Australian army uniform standing on the side of a tank with a camera on a tripod between them

Australian photographer, Captain George Hubert Wilkins, MC, (right) with Staff Sergeant William Joyce (left), standing with tripod and camera on a British Mark V tank (AWME03915).

Two men wearing Australian army uniform and helmets standing behind a camera on a tripod

Captain Frank Hurley, official photographer, discusses photographic opportunities for the forthcoming Battle of Bardia with Major Gordon Hurley, 6th Division (AWM 005304).

Feeling limited by the technology he could use and the conditions he was using it in, Hurley staged photographs and produced composite images using several negatives. Hurley was criticised for this by Bean who decided Hurley’s work was ‘unreliable’.

Australian soldiers in trenches with some walking and climbing out of the trenches as airplanes fly above and shells hit the ground around them with smoke billowing from the ground

A composite photograph, originally known as "A hop over", constructed by Captain Frank Hurley (AWM E05988B).

Hurley however believed that he was overcoming access and technological limitations in order to portray the war more accurately.

Bean took his objections to staged photos very seriously, even noting particular photographs that were staged by photographers in his diary including this photo below taken in the trenches of the Bois Grenier sector.

Five Australian diggers wearing helmets are pictured in a trench holding guns


Another famous war photograph, this time from the Second World War, taken by British official photographer Len Chetwyn in the El Alamein sector, shows troops of the 9th Australian Division storming a German strongpoint through a dense smoke screen which hid their movements from the enemy. Or does it?

Four men pictured holding guns with bayonets crouching as they run into smoke

(AWM 042070)

While this event really did occur, the photograph was staged after the battle. Rather than advancing towards a German strongpoint, the men are charging towards their own cookhouse.

Ninety-six-year-old Kokoda veteran George Palmer (pictured right below) recalls the moment he was captured in this iconic photograph (pictured below left) taken by Academy Award winner Damien Parer. George is the second man from the right.

“There was about 50 of us in single file and this chap was standing on the side of the track and he called out ‘righto boys, make sure there’s plenty of mud around your feet’ and that was Damien Parer – I’d never heard of him before.

“We never realised that photo would capture the history of the Kokoda Track.”

Six men pictured climbing up a hill in the jungle through mud. Some hold guns and backpacks.A Kokoda veteran pictured wearing a suit with a red tie and medals

George has a framed copy of the photograph at home which serves as a constant reminder of his time spent serving his country at Kokoda and the mates he made.

Whether staged photographs overcome the challenges faced by war photographers in portraying battles, or whether staging photographs was a form of propaganda, still remains a contentious issue. Regardless, war photographs offer us a valuable insight into conflict and its effects on people and places. Without it, our ability to understand these important moments in history would be severely diminished.