Analysis on war photography

War photography has existed since the nineteenth century, when Roger Fenton set out to photograph the Crimean war in 1855. From the beginning of war photography questions have always been raised about their representation of the truth. Compared to modern day cameras the exposure time required to take a photograph ensured that action shots were not possible. The images could only be of dead on the battlefield or posed for.

This was apparent throughout Alexander Gardeners photos of the American Civil. The photographer, who created the book Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, was famed for staging various shots. The image which was captioned, “The home of a rebel sharpshooter” was proved to have been staged. Civil war experts reviewed the image revealing that Gardner had dragged the body into the shot and twisted his head towards the camera. The gun also within the image was placed strategically by Gardner.

During World War two the staging of photographs continued. The cameras used during this war were a significant improvement and allowed for action shots to be taken but still questions were being asked about the authenticity of some of the photographs. Yevgeny Khaldei’s famous photograph of a Soviet soldier placing the Soviet Union’s flag atop of the Reichstag building in Berlin was in fact staged. The photo was taken three days after the Soviets had firstly placed a flag at the top. The image was taken at such an angle to prevent showing other Soviet soldiers who were looting and the soldiers were handpicked by Khaldei.

Another of a photo which is circled by rumours of being staged is the most reproduced photo in the world. Jim Rosenthal’s photo of the flag rising at Iwo Jima was claimed to be, “too perfect”. The image taken was not the first picture of a flag being raised. Marine Photographer took the first picture of a flag being raised earlier in the day while the marine were under heavy fire. Rosenthal’s photo was taken later in the day and pictured a much larger flag.

There has always been a partiality of representation in major wars simply because usually only one side is reported on by journalists representing news institutes from the same country as the army they report on. This begs the question of what is the purpose of war photography. Is it to inform the public or to provide morale for troops and the home public?

The purpose of war photography has shifted throughout the years. During earlier wars photos were purely used to inform the public. Images were sent back to keep the public updated on what their troops were doing. In contrast, recent war photography, due to censorship and embedding, has become nothing more than propaganda. Staged and altered shots are created in order to show the military in a positive light, therefore limiting the offence they create to the viewing public.

Other factors need to be taken into account, in order to determine whether war reporting is purely for morale of the country or to inform the public, such as the safety of the nation. For instance the World wars threatened national survival, so therefore reports and photographs released and published were intended to create a sense of morale and keep the war effort going. This was mainly as everyone would have been affected by the war., while wars being fought in foreign countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan lead to a sense of anonymity as it is out of direct view of the public. Reports and images published from these photojournalists need to carry a certain amount of truth to inform the public back in their home countries.

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The Vietnam War is known as the war that was lost on TV. The media was allowed to publish all kinds of images. During Vietnam the press was given remarkable freedom to report the war without any government control. Vietnam was the most heavily covered war in which reporters were not subject to extensive censorship. Pictures of decapitated bodies and civilian’s injuries were being broadcast back in America causing the public to think twice about the war that was taking place.

President at the time Richard Nixon stressed this issue by saying,

“In each nights TV news and each morning’s papers the war was reported battle by battle, but little or no sense of the underlying purpose of the fighting was conveyed. Eventually this contributed to the impression that we were fighting in military quicksand, rather than toward an important and worthwhile objective.”

The severity of the images was one of many factors that contributed to the American government losing the will to fight on in the war. Many journalists generally reported what they saw both positive and negative, according to James Reston, “journalists didn’t think it was their mission to serve the war effort”. The freedom they were given was interpreted in several different ways, with the majority reporting the war in a completely subjective way. Reston goes onto say, “for better or worse it was the journalist’s views that prevailed with the public, whose disenchantment forced an end to American involvement.”

This was especially prominent in independent photographers, as they would not have an editorial agenda to adhere to. Inevitably during military briefings they would lose the idea of the ‘big picture’. Although it can be argued that military briefings are often thinly disguised as propaganda anyway.

The general stance on reporting the war started to change as the war progressed. The longer the conflict continued the more graphic the images and reports were. The offensive and disturbing reports from Vietnam as well as conscription and the fatality rate led to many people staging an anti war protest and voicing their concerns about the war. The largest of which was at Washington DC when a reported two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered in joint protest.

Although it is claimed to be one of the contributing factors Professor Daniel Hallin of the University of California at San Diego conducted a study into the Vietnam coverage. He concluded that the war coverage was almost completely sanitised on television, due to the need not to cause any offence to any of the soldier’s families.

As a response to what happened in Vietnam, the censorship put upon the press by the British government during the Falklands war was at an extreme. Every inch of columns and pictures had to be check thoroughly by army officials before it was then passed onto the Ministry of Defence, who then proceeded to check it again before it could be published. The censorship in the Falklands was so extreme that it led to the word “censored” actually being censored.

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Due to the negative press that was created throughout Vietnam, the British government made a deliberate attempt to stop people knowing what was going on. The government were keen to project a positive picture back the British public and it did this by starving the press of any influential information. This was evident on the 14th of May 1982 when an Exocet missile hit HMS Sheffield. The military ensured that the news was delayed in reaching the reporters present. All reporters were also kept at arm’s length any live footage sent back to Britain was shot from a few hundred metres away. Very few clear picture of HMS Sheffield were shown back in Britain.

Before the invasion of Iraq it was decided that journalists would be embedding among soldiers

The concept of embedding reporters was an initiative proposed by the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The concept was introduced after initial pressure from the country’s news media. The press were disappointed with the level of access that they were granted in previous conflict zones. The concept of Embedding reporters was not a new on but it was never carried out on this kind of scale before.

After deciding to embed reporters among soldiers Rumsfeld explained the reasoning behind his decision,

“We need to tell the factual story-good and bad-before others seed the media with disinformation and distortion, as they most certainly will continue to do. Our people in the field need to tell our story-only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops.”

The main concept of embedding reporters is that they would identify with the troops around them.

Each journalist would be assigned to a company of soldiers and would experience the war first hand in the frontline. Each reporter would be issued with military equipment; they would also eat and sleep alongside their respective soldiers. By assigning a journalist to a troop, it meant that the reporter could be placed anywhere. This meant that the position of the embed could be decided by the military. Around six hundred national and local journalists were embedded with troops as they entered Iraq.

The system of embedding reporters tended to have a psychological effect upon reporters causing them to lose the ability to remain objective. The system also led to reporters having tunnel vision especially when reporting on tactical operation. Journalists would only see one or two units in action, and therefore only reporting upon what they were doing. Gordon Dillow an embedded reported said, “I fell in love with ‘my’ marines… I wasn’t reporting; the point was I was reporting the Marine grunt truth – which had also become my truth.”

The following images and articles will be analysed using Roland Barthes theory of semiotics. Building upon Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories Barthes constructed his own theory of semiotics. According to his paper Myth today (1957) the theory consists of a signifier, the signified and the sign. The signifier is the term used to describe the image, which is being examined, and the signified is the term used to describe any ideas which are raised by the signifier, and the sign is the correlation of the signifier and the signified. Barthes also noted that anything signified by the signifier is culturally specific,

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‘Signifieds have a very close communication with culture, knowledge, history, and it is through them so to speak, that the environmental world invades the system’. Barthes (1967)

This would suggest that whatever is being signified may change over time and that different people would interpret signifieds differently. For example within an Indian culture cows are perceived as a sacred holy animal, while in western culture the cow is simply a provider of food. Due to the fact that each signified is culturally specific Barthes theory also takes into account the uses of denotation and connotation. Denotation is a literal description of the image or object being examined while connotation is the ideas associated with the image or object.

When analysing press photographs it is important to also include the caption, as Barthes claims that the image and the caption are ‘two different structures’. Barthes uses the term’s anchorage and relay when referring press photograph captions. Anchorage refers to when the text within the caption,’ directs the reader through the signifieds of the image causing him to avoid some and receive others.’ Barthes (1977). Relay describes the addition of something in the caption, which is not actually present in the image.

Barthes also included in his theory of semiotics the element of myth. Myth is described as, “a second-order semiological system.” Barthes argues that signification is divided into two different sections connotations and denotation and myth is signification in the connotative level. Myth sees the signifiers in its raw form.

Similar to signifieds myth is divided into two categories, the language object which is the linguistic system and myth itself which is described as metalanguage because it is a second language which talks about the first one. Barthes described the use of myth as,

“When he reflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist no longer needs to ask himself questions about the composition of the language object, he no longer has to take into account the details of the linguistic schema; he will only need to know its total term or global sign…”
(Barthes 1967)

When using Barthes theory two competing myths can be attained about war. One myth is based upon General William Tecumseh Sherman’s quote that reads,

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood…War is hell.”

The competing myth to this is that war can be fought in a morally acceptable way. Making a war morally manageable is minimising the risk to casualties and soldiers and hence political and electoral risks to their masters.

By using various photographs and articles from differing conflicts such as Vietnam, the Falklands, and Afghanistan, this essay will use Barthes theory of semiotics to test the theory that images from non embedded reporters will support the myth that war is hell and embedded photographers will show that war can be fought in a morally acceptable way.

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