History of war photography | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

History of war photography

12 June, 2021

Not long after the formal introduction of photography into the civilized world in the early 19th century, the act of capturing images onto film was warmly accepted by the world. Quickly, the potential of photography was realized and exploited in every way possible at the time. One such advantage of photography which was discovered was it’s unparalleled ability to enhance and encourage public awareness. One of the earliest uses of publicly available photographic processes was the photography of war.

While photos of active combat would have made for better publicity, certain limitations existed back then that prevented such photography. For the first few decades since its invention, photography was a cumbersome process that took a lot of time per photo. While many different methods of photography were invented at the time, most needed exposure from a still image for hours at a time. While faster techniques were developed not too long after, for a time, most had to deal with time consuming processes like the Daguerreotype, introduced to the world by Louis Daguerro in 1839. As a result, the earliest known photographs of war were usually shot during preparation for combat or were of the results of the carnage.

Crimean war

The first war to be officially photographed was the Crimean War, fought by Russia against an alliance of the United Kingdom, France and the Ottoman Empire between 1853 and 1856. This war pioneered the use of other modern technologies as well, such as railways, telegraphs and naval shelling. During the tail end of the conflict, the UK commissioned British photographer Roger Fenton, one of a small group of photographers set to cover the war effort for the benefit of the public.

His most famous photo, The Valley of The Shadow of Death, became known as the first iconic photo of war. However, the legitimacy of this photograph has since been questioned and theories have sprung up of it being staged for dramatic effect.

As technology developed, the ability to take photos during heavy combat rose but at the greater risk of the photographer’s life. During the Second World War, dozens of photographic correspondents were known to have been killed during combat, with far more injured. However, their work was vital, not only for the preservation of the historical events that occurred but also as a source of publicity for the war effort. Photos would be used as propaganda, which resulted in more backing from home.

One of the most popular of these from World War 2 was, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945 during the Battle of Iwo Jima against the Japanese. Despite the battle itself being a controversial one, being one of major loss of life for next to no strategic advantage, the photo greatly aided the American war effort, and continues to be an inspirational symbol of the American military to this day.


Another similar photo from the Second World War was that of the, Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, taken after the Battle of Berlin by Yevgeny Khaldei. However, unlike the candid shot of the Iwo Jima photo, the Reichstag photo was a staged reenactment of what happened during actual combat, the original flag having been shot down by Germans during combat. The version of the photo that was popularized was also doctored, with a bit of editing to look more dramatic. The photographer also scratched out a second watch on the soldier who was raising the flag, which implied looting, a capital offense at the time. In spite of this, the photo continued to be an iconic depiction of the Allied Powers victory over the Axis.