Combat Photography:

Battlefield at Antietam

In 1859, it was predicted that photography would be able to visually document future wars perfectly and unobjectively by generating precise documentation of battles, fortifications, landscapes, soldiers, and military officials.

It was anticipated that photographers, supposedly not acting as active participants of war but as neutral observers, would be able to bring their cumbersome photographic equipment into the battlefield and record the rapid action of combat. This proved to be not the case, as the technical insufficiency of early photography - where exposure time was measured in minutes, not frames - was not considered.

As a result, early photographers were forced to record more sedentary aspects of war: buildings, soldiers, and land before and after battle, along with the re-creation of action scenes. The proliferation of the still images allowed the public to be more informed in the discourses of war. The advent of mass-reproduced war images was not only used to inform the public but they served as imprints of the time and as historical recordings.

Photographers who participate in this genre often find themselves in harmís way, and are sometimes killed trying to get their pictures. Journalists and photographers are protected by international conventions of armed warfare, but that they are often considered targets by warring groups ó sometimes to show hatred of their opponents and other times to prevent the facts shown in the photographs from being known.



War Photographers

During the first World War, the government did not allow a single picture of an American casualty to be published for the entire duration of the war. This policy remained in place for almost two years into the Second World War.

The Office of War Information actively censored words, images, and film, but the censors also depended on a degree of self-censorship. Photographers learned not to wastre effort taking pictures they knew weren't going to be used, and officers reveiwing battlefield photos had the authority to suppress them.

In 1943, the government made a major strategic change in its censorship policy. Opinion polls found that the public was weary of the war, so officials decided to allow the press to publish images of dead Americans. For the first time in decades, Americans saw images of their dead countrymen on foreign shores. But even these images were sterilized for public consumption. The OWI kept strict control over what types of images were acceptable, approving rather anonymous pictures of gracefully fallen men, like the first ever published photograph of American casualties in 1943.


The Results:

Hamiltonís photos show few dead bodies; either he self-censored or those images were rejected. But even within the strict, imposed guidelines, his work shows the chaos and whirlwind of battle, from the rubble-lined streets to an exhausted soldier dozing in the street to glider that landed wrong-side up. His co-workers in the Dispatch say that he talked little about the war, so we have to imagine the stress of warfare, in which Hamilton put his life on the line to get images. Warren Motts, himself a combat photographer, sums up Rodger's work in this video: