“Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into some thing that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality (p. 81).”
Photographs can never really be objective records of history; photographers inject their own artistic attitudes into their work.
Photographers have been immortalizing warfare with their cameras since the time of the Crimean War. Back then, it was impossible to create objective photographs, not that anyone would have tried. The British sent out Roger Fenton to present the war to the public “as a dignified all-male group outing (p.50).” Because it took several seconds to capture a single picture, it was impossible for Fenton to photograph actual combat, and the government forbade him from photographing any dead, ill or maimed soldiers. In addition, he had to pose his subjects, so the soldiers were aware of their being photographed. It was virtually impossible for Fenton to create candid, realistic photos that reflected the true lives led by the soldiers; he could only produce artful photographs that reinforced the attitudes presented to the British public by the government.
But even after photography became more practical at the time of the Civil War, photographers still manipulated the composition of their photographs. Photographers like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’ Sullivan still captured actual soldiers and actual battlefields, but they continued to use artistic license to create images that were more compelling to their viewers. Photographers posed dead soldiers and manipulated the compositions of their work, even though technology had progressed to the point that staging their photos was unnecessary. They still held onto the belief that “to photograph was to compose (with living subjects, to pose) and the desire to arrange elements in the picture did not vanish because the subject was immobilized, or immobile (p. 53).”
With the invention of motion pictures, one would think that war would finally be recorded as it really happened, but this still wasn’t the case. Soldiers reenacted battle charges and other events for the benefit of the cameramen. In 1898 Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill a second time, after the battle, because the actual battle charge was deemed “insufficiently dramatic.” Films were also shot again if the original reel was too violent or too terrible. Historical records were still being fabricated, even though new technology made such falsifications increasingly difficult.
With the advent of the motion picture, photographers became somewhat obsolete in their office of recording history. Yet photographs still hold power. Photography is selective; “it is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude (p. 46).” Photographers in more recent times use their photographs to make statements about war. In the Vietnam War, photographers criticized the war with their photographs, to reflect and support the criticism expressed by the American public. However, the viewers of such photos still seem to forget about the photographers that are behind the photos, framing them to fit their purposes. A picture may be worth so many thousands of words, but those words are not and never will be objective.
“The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs (p. 89).”
Photographs taken today in Iraq will be found in textbooks thirty years from now. Our children and the generations that follow will look at those pictures and read the stories that go along with them, but they will probably retain the memory of the photograph over the words found in the text.
Photographs have been used to depict warfare for centuries now. Photographers like Roger Fenton and Timothy O’Sullivan recorded the so-called realities of war. While their photographs were not completely true to life, they still hold a piece of the truth. Fenton’s photographs show the very idealistic side of the Crimean War, which did exist, if only in the rarest of moments, and O’Sullivan’s work showed the brutal realities of war-time epidemics and death on a battlefield. Even if his photographs were not photos of soldiers exactly as they’d fallen, they were photographs of real dead soldiers that had died real deaths, from real bullets or real illnesses.
According to Sontag, “a painting or drawing is judged a fake when it turns out not to be by the artist to whom it had been attributed. A photographÐ’… is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict (p. 46).” This is because people assume that photographs are not art, or that they can be both art and historical fact simultaneously. This is impossible. No matter how advanced technology becomes, it will always be impossible to produce a completely objective photograph; the photographer will inevitably shine through, in the subject matter, in the composition, in everything; a photographer becomes part of his work, and that work therefore becomes art. Photographers have not been recording warfare for centuries-they have been creating art surrounding warfare, and in doing so, they have captured the true essences of that warfare.