How Photographic Technology Shapes Our Understanding of War

As cameras have evolved, we've been exposed, more intimately, to conflict. 
Three "Johnnie Reb" prisoners, captured at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

Graphic imagery has been an indelible feature of armed conflict from the days of Civil War daguerreotypes, when Matthew Brady and other early photographers captured the horrors of the battlefield. With each succeeding war, as cameras became more advanced, the role of photography has evolved to convey the realities of combat and the agonies inflicted, primarily on the soldiers in the field. There is a tragic artistry to the unforgettable pictures of the dead and wounded in twentieth-century wars.

Some photographs are heroic. Joe Rosenthal's iconic snapshot of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima in February 1945 is enshrined in national memory as a prelude to victory. Vietnam was called "The Television War" because it was the first conflict featured on news broadcasts, usually within a day or two of the events.

Joe Rosenthal's photograph of soldiers at Iwo Jima (AP)

The imagery of today's wars has moved beyond the relative formality of television coverage, then at its peak, to the output of digital cameras and mobile devices. They are visceral because they are so raw. Anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account can post unfiltered videos from virtually any setting for audiences of incalculable size the world over.

As a result, our view of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria is profoundly different. Civil unrest around the world - Egypt, Turkey, even Iran - is instantly available and shapes the perception of these events. Victimized civilians - who in the past were less visible in wars that had fixed front lines with armies engaged in classic settings - are now a dominant presence. It is the scenes of ordinary women and children, as well as fighters on both sides, in the worst of circumstances that symbolize so much of what we now perceive of chaotic war zones. There is undeniable power in this unending flow of visual brutality.

A still from the videos, distributed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, documenting the Syrian chemical weapons attacks

After the chemical weapons attacks of August 21, the Senate Intelligence Committee posted thirteen videos selected by the Open Source Center, a compilation of material provided by the intelligence community from YouTube content, posted by Syrian opposition groups with a warning: "These videos contain disturbing images of dead bodies including children. Viewer discretion is advised."

Another excruciating example from the Syrian civil war was a front-page photo in the The New York Times, on September 5. It was a still from a video (which turned out to be more than a year old) provided "by a former rebel" showing seven terrified Syrian soldiers, their faces pressed to the dirt in the moments before they were executed.

Matthew Brady's war photography equipment (Library of Congress)

The notion that social media has become a principal means of transmitting such ghastly portraits is a measure of how war photography has changed. There is far more to be seen than was possible before, and much of it comes from the prevalence of digital instruments in the hands of amateurs. Limits on images of dead American soldiers are still imposed by editors at traditional media outlets like the Times, "because it never wants to make public the news of a death that the family may not yet know about," according to Joseph Kahn, the paper's foreign editor. But such restraint is the exception when vast amounts of digital photography (and video) are intended to be directly accessible across multiple platforms.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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