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The humanity of war: iconic photojournalism of the battlefield


From the First World War to the war on terror, the ways of war have changed drastically over the last century. The images which record these conflicts have also evolved.

An extensive body of work describes, examines and attempts to reason on the wars of the past hundred years. Little consideration, however, has been given to the images which form a large part of the records of the conflicts. Yet these images are vital for understanding how war and soldiering, and our perceptions of both, have changed over the decades.

The First World War was the first conflict seen on the home front in images almost in real time. Newspapers were able to publish pictures of the battles being fought in a matter of days bringing a new sense of immediacy and involvement for those at home. According to Professor Lilie Chouliaraki of the Department of Media and Communications, it signalled “the mediatisation of conflict”.

However, this new visibility was accompanied by strict state control. Images of the battlefield had to fit the propaganda around the conflict, and clear ideas of ‘what war is’ can be seen in them. While modern developments, such as digital cameras and the internet, mean images of war are now shared more quickly, widely and freely, an element of regulation and self-regulation can still be seen in the strong themes which unite contemporary war imagery.

Professor Chouliaraki argues that each conflict has a distinct identity seen in its images, and over the decades these identities have evolved. She says: “In the early 20th century, countries fought wars of sovereignty, with the civilian army of one nation battling that of another. In contrast, contemporary wars are presented as humanitarian causes. Armies of professional soldiers are shown as defending human rights and securing democracy in foreign lands. These starkly different views of war can be seen in the images of conflict.”
In images of the First World War, soldiers pose statically alongside their weapons. There is no acknowledgement of human vulnerability, merely a focus on power, man and machine - almost man as machine. In contrast, while the idea of a ‘humanitarian’ war is often challenged, the imagery of a soldier helping vulnerable populations or looking vulnerable themselves dominates contemporary photojournalism. These images - some of which are award winners - show soldiers expressing feelings towards comrades or civilians.

This shift from the dispassionate portrayals of the First World War have given way to intimate images of benevolent or traumatised soldiers represents a key change in war imagery, moving from an under-emotionalising to an over-emotionalising of the battlefield and reflecting changing attitudes to soldiers.

Professor Chouliaraki identifies the changing nature of warfare as another factor behind the shifting imagery of war. In the conflicts of the early 1900s, the battlefield was far from the home front, in some corner of a foreign field. Grand vistas of battlefields full of mud, debris and bodies turn war into an object of often eerie contemplation in many images. However, modern insurgency warfare has brought the violence of conflict into the homes of civilians. The images are close-up and intense snapshots of civilian suffering, showing an intimacy not seen in the anonymous landscapes of battlefields.

This shift from distant to intimate images is also part of the increasing ‘emotionalisation’ of war imagery that Professor Chouliaraki identifies. This new intimacy is particularly seen in the increasing number of photographs taken by ordinary people caught up in war.

Discussing these new citizen journalists, Professor Chouliaraki says: “These intimate images do not only bring new emotional immediacy to images of conflict, establishing a new genre of photojournalism, what we may call ‘a photography of trauma’. They also challenge the idea of a ‘humanitarian’ war as a means to protect civilians or defend human rights. This is particularly true when images expose atrocities committed by ‘our’ armies – as happened in the case of the pictures from Abu Ghraib where American soldiers were photographed abusing prisoners.”

Although the style and focus of images of war have changed over the years, these images of suffering have always raised difficult issues, such as whether photographing the horrors of war is an intrusion on suffering or a glamorisation of violence. Or does taking a picture rather than trying to alleviate the suffering mean that a photographer is participating in that suffering, even if he or she has no physical involvement?

Professor Chouliaraki says: “When we talk about photojournalism, we need to differentiate between ‘eye-witnessing’, watching suffering as a corporeal event happening right there and then, and ‘bearing witness’, turning that suffering into a moral event shown to others in a powerful image which demands a public response. Even though the photographer is always, by definition, a witness, her or his vital role lies in enabling us, as spectators, to bear witness to the atrocities she or he records. This is because what photographers picture and how they picture it invites audiences to engage, reflect, react. These images compel us to consider what we should feel or do as witnesses of its horrors and, ultimately, raise the question of who we are and want to be. They are very important in reminding us what it means to be human and urge us to take responsibility for vulnerable others.

“Over a century of conflicts, the ways in which wars are fought and communicated have developed, ideas of humanity in war and soldiering have changed and the justifications for battles evolved, but the fact of suffering and the need to mark it with the witness of an image has remained constant.”

Posted: 28 August 2014

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Lilie Chouliaraki| is Professor of Media and Communications in LSE's Department of Media and Communications.