This essay is about how war photography has lost its place as the primary source of visual news images taken in conflicts and how this has contributed to a rise in late photography. In arguing that the war photographer in the conflict zone and with a still camera has been usurped by the video cameraman and the citizen journalist I might appear to be suggesting that war photographers no longer exist. This is neither true nor my intent. There still brave and dedicated photographers working professionally in “hot” war zones, some like Chris Hondros have been recently killed and, this year, the journalist James Foley, has been captured and murdered whilst doing his job. My suggestion that their role has changed is not intended to infer that their work is not valuable. If there is any doubt about the quality and value of the work of contemporary war photographers a visit to NBC’s gallery of Chris Hondros‘ (14) work will quickly dispel that thought.
David Campany in his essay Safety in Numbness (1) discusses the rise of late or aftermath photography, and asks questions about both the ongoing role of still photography within photojournalism and whether late photography fosters a certain indifference that undermines the political will to resolve issues. The second question is not a new concern, Martha Rosler, in her essay on documentary photography, In, Around and Afterthoughts (2), was concerned that documentary photography in general was more concerned with moralising that with revolutionary politics.
In both cases the writers are highlighting that the photographer can offer sublime images that divert us from looking into the deeper narrative to seek answers to the local or geopolitical issues that led to the event or situation on view.
As discussed in an earlier essay, Critical Debates Around Photojournalism, there are many examples of photojournalism or documentary photography accelerating social and political change, and just as many, if not more, examples where it is questionable whether the priority was the picture or the issue. There is a risk when reading Rosler, Sontag, Campany and others to attempt to apply their ideas to all the work within any given genre of photography when, in practice, each writer is focussing on specific examples that raise specific concerns. Sometimes the specifics ask questions about the more general but this does not necessarily make the ideas universally applicable. Not all documentary photography is motivated by a need to pave the way for social change any more than all photojournalism is intended to stimulate the desire to find a political solution. Much of the work under either heading is simply recording and documenting, or communicating a fact. Many artists have appointed themselves as the tellers of a greater truth, the highlighter pens of social injustice but there are as many, or more, whose interests lie with the aesthetic rather than the political message.
In this instance and in this essay I want to focus much more on the changing role of photojournalism and how late photography fits within that role and, because there is some cross over with my previous essay on photojournalism, less on whether it is an effective way of promoting social change or stimulating political debate.
The Demise of Action Based War Photography
There is a growing body of conflict-based photojournalism that focuses on the aftermath rather the action and it would be all too easy to use this as evidence of the demise of action-based war photography and the beginning of a new, late photography genre. In reality action-based war photojournalism replaced aftermath photography and then survived a very short time before being replaced by video, in terms of being the main visual news medium, and by a return to aftermath still photography.
Of all forms of photography war photography probably has the longest history of government and/or military control so, if we believe that a fundamental requirement of journalism is to be independent of government control, then a high percentage of war photography cannot be seen as photojournalism. Roger Fenton, who is often held up as the first war photographer, was sent to the Crimea to capture photographs that would counter-balance the negative view of the war that was being communicated in the pages of The Times (Sontag (3)). He was under instruction not to photograph bodies or any other scenes that might dishearten the British public and as a result his photographs have all the bite of a rugby club tour, some good chaps enjoying a bit of camping whilst waiting for the dastardly Russian to come to their senses. His photographs are of great historical and documentary value, a helpful and informative record of the British Army on campaign in the 1850s but they are not photojournalism in the mode of Philip Jones Griffiths or Don McCullin. When he got closer to the action he depicted the aftermath not the event and his most famous war photo of the “Valley of Death” was probably staged and nowhere near the site of the Light Brigade’s Charge (Badger p.26 (4)) so he simultaneously invented late photography and predated Jeff Wall’s tableaux of the aftermath of war, Dead Troops Talk (5) by 140 years.
David Campbell, in his essay, Representing Contemporary War, (6) points out that from Fenton to World War II the photographers and/or the photographs they published were tightly controlled by the military. In every war many of the photographers were propagandists for one side or the other, paid Government employees with a clear agenda, many others were comfortable to stage the decisive moments to create a better front page back home. This is not to suggest that the conflict based photojournalism from WWII is to be ignored or devalued. Eugene Smith’s coverage of The Pacific War (7)and Robert Capa in Europe (8) are two of many remarkable photographers who have left us iconic images of that conflict. It is also relevant to consider that some of the most powerful and influential photography coming out of that war was, in effect, late photography, examples being George Rodger (9) and Lee Miller’s (10) photographs of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald respectively.
The Vietnam war was the first major conflict where the military lost some of their control over some of the still photographers and where, at the same time, the video journalist became the main news reporter. This makes the Vietnam war important as an event where we can compare the comparative documentation of video and still photography and as the last war where the ambitious and brave, professional ( i ) photojournalist could seek out and capture a truly personal viewpoint. It might be argued that this was the war photographer’s war where those journalists willing to escape the daily briefings of the US military could unofficially attach themselves to forward units but from the perspective of the US public the freedom of the journalist was not always matched by the willingness of their publishers to print work that highlighted America’s incompetence and brutality. Philip Jones Griffiths resorted to publishing his photos in book form as Vietnam Inc. (11) because the American media was so reluctant to take his work.
But if Vietnam was the first major conflict that provided freedom of expression for the photojournalist it was also the last. The Gulf War saw the introduction of imbedded journalists, a way to tightly control the movement and perspective of the press corps. But, even if the photojournalist had still been able to capture an unique and unbiased perspective from inside the combat unit they were assigned to, the Vietnam War had already shown how TV news could bring the war to people’s living rooms in moving pictures and that these pictures would, from now on, be the visual record of breaking news. For the first time war as a reality-movie could be offered as real time entertainment and so, in the space of a single war, conflict-based war photography reached its zenith and then lost its place as the primary source of visual war reporting.
The Growth of Late Photography
The growth of 24 hour television news and the internet, which both have a voracious appetite for moving images, has combined with the factors discussed above to reduce both the opportunity and the demand for action-based, still, war photography. To believe that this is the only or the main reason for the growth of late photography would be to suggest that there was and is a large group of frustrated war photographers who, when denied access to their preferred subjects, have just waited until the action has moved on and taken pictures of whatever is left behind. This would go no way towards explaining why this type of photography appears in books, magazines and galleries and has achieved a good measure of critical acclaim. Nor would it explain, to use Campany’s example why Joel Meyerowitz (16) was commissioned to capture the aftermath at Ground Zeroin still photographs. It is therefore important to understand why photographers are seeking out the aftermath and why their audience is so interested.
Part of the explanation probably lies in the fundamental differences between moving and still images. As long ago as 1978, in Pictures on a Page (12), Harold Evans explained why a single, still image, had become a fundamental requirement to confirm an event. “Some stories are beyond doubt but the event is not complete without the final photograph.” He argues that television “informs and excites” but the very nature of moving images makes them harder to remember. David Campbell (6) tells us that Susan Sontag believes that each video image cancels out its predecessor whilst a still image is seemingly more permanent. Evans, Campany and Campbell all take this thought further by arguing, in varying ways, that our minds are more in tune with a still image, something we can ponder, contemplate, return to physically and recall in our minds. Evans goes as far as naming the photographs that sum up whole eras, define great sweeping events and became emblematic of the major events in recent history, it is left unsaid but he infers that television footage will never take over this space . There is a relationship between our minds and a single image that allows us to trigger memories and an emotional reaction to the subject that goes beyond that single frame. This relationship appears to be less pronounced when we look at video footage so many people will remember the single falling man from the twin towers rather than the hour of live coverage that led up to this short, horrifying and defining moment.
If we accept that there is a physiological reaction to a still image that helps it to communicate with us in a way a moving image cannot, then we are closer to understanding the appeal of late photography. By its very nature late photography is contemplative, the photographer is somewhere after the action has moved on, some form of stillness now exists, the photographer is not snapping at a moving target, he or she is able to observe, think and consider what and how they wish to communicate. They have an emotional reaction to a scene that they wish to forward to the audience via their photograph and both the process of taking the photograph and passing it to us via a book or gallery or even via the internet is a comparatively slow process. The point being that it is not news photography – now and the present, it is something else – then and the past. It is not an instant reaction and we are not asked to make an instant response.
This slower process also allows the photographer to be more artist than journalist and this might give rise to some of the critics concerns regarding the beautification of, what should be, a scene that horrifies us and promotes a political reaction. ( ii )
Overall late photography has the ability to ask its audience to slow down, contemplate the image and think about a subject. Intriguingly the image may not have any obvious, visual, connection to the subject bering considered. The photographer will often need to provide enough context to prime our thoughts but then the audience can be left to ponder. Whilst I understand Campany’s concerns that the audience might look more closely at the art than the message this has always been the case with art and the shallowness of some of the audience should not devalue the artist’s message.
Contemporary Late Photography and Zones of Conflict
There are many contemporary examples of late photography associated with conflict zones, Simon Norfolk (13) ( iii ) uses late photography extensively; his subjects range from past and recent conflicts to genocide and there is often an archeological sense to his work including photographing found items on battle fields.
One might argue that Norfolk’s work is slow photography because it takes time to view and understand, his text is usually essential reading otherwise the context is unclear but a combination of his words and images trigger contemplation. A good example of this is Normandy Beaches (13) which, on face value is a series of sky and seascapes.
Norfolk is searching for a way to talk about war and conflict in both a general and a specific way. He describes himself as a landscape photographer who is “probing and stretching the meaning of the word “battlefield” and his photographs, especially when concerned with comparatively recent conflicts, are emotionally charged.
Russell Squires’ D-Day – “Landings” (15) is in a similar vein in the sense that without context the photographs are simply French beach scenes but once we have the context, which in this case, only needs to be the title, we are invited to enter a stream of thought starting on the Normandy beaches. This work differs from much of Norfolk’s work in that it looks back 70 years to a conflict and captures battlefields that symbolise the beginning of the liberation of Europe. These locations are now nearly devoid of traces of those battles and Squires is not seeking the archaeological remains that we see, for example, in Norfolk’s Afghanistan Chronotopia so the resulting images are vehicles for our minds to use to access our reactions, emotions and memories of D Day.
This element of time is an important factor in late photography but it is not a simple formula. An old “battlefield” does not necessarily evoke less emotion than the site of a recent atrocity but generally, we react differently based on the lapsed time between the event and the photographer’s visit. My reaction to Landings was to open up memories of my father and uncles who served in WWII, none of them were in Normandy but the idea of the invasion triggered general family-at-war images.
Late Photography at a More Intimate Level
Late photography is not restricted to battlefields, or at least not in the normal sense of the word, Willie Doherty (17) captures landscapes with a troubled past, often centred around his home city of Londonderry. His photos are post conflict but not focussed on scenes of mass conflict, they are often places where personal tragedy became another one day headline, another sectarian murder. They therefore tell personal stories within the context of wider political and social events.
In Conflicting Account (18) Paul Seawright, another Northern Irishman, focusses on the conflicting narratives of his Country’s history by seeking out “visual fragments” that represent that history.
In his recent blog post for OCA Russell Squires (19) included some of his own work that explored a landscape that had been the scene of male rape. There is a growing body of work that looks at murder or suicide sites and other landscapes that have been the scene of violence. During TAoP I looked at the work of Chris Steele Perkins (here) who revisited the scene of the Japanese Tsunami to document the initial devastation and the same streets after their initial clearance.
A slow pace is common to all these examples, it is not action or fast photography, it is slow, methodical and thoughtful as if the artist is setting the pace for the viewer to follow. Even when the images are presented as a slide show as in Steele Perkin’s case (20), we are not rushed through the images as we would be with video. David Campbell (6) makes the point that time is a fundamental component of viewing a photograph, we can make multiple visits over varying timescales with endless opportunity to explore and interrogate. This self-determined pace, unlike the forced pace of film, allows us to trigger connected streams of thought and enables the extraction of more information from the photograph than the photographer originally included.
But Campbell also points out that “Being a site for contemplation does not necessarily make the photograph an instrument for political change”.
Campbell is right but neither journalism nor photojournalism can offer any guarantees of invoking such a strong reaction that change is inevitable. By maximising the context of time in its capture and presentation late photography is naturally more contemplative than action photography and rarely contains the distraction of graphic horror. This creates an aura, a thoughtful mood, around the image that encourages us to consider the past, present and future implications of the event.
Notes on Text
( i ) I have introduced the term “professional photographer” at this point to make a clear distinction between professional photojournalists and so-called, citizen journalists. The general reduction in available assignments for professional, still, photographers and the increasing difficult for those journalist to work in conflict zones has led to main stream television and the printed press accepting and using photos taken by private individuals. This is an area which deserves far more space than I am able to give it here but for the avoidance of doubt these citizen journalists and their work is outside the discussion of this essay.
( ii ) The question of whether a photograph of human distress should avoid being artistic is a debate for another time. I have looked at this question in the past and have always come back to looking at Josef Koudelka, one of the most skilful and artistic photographers of my generation, and asking whether his stylist product masks his concern for the displaced or subjected people he photographs. For me, it doesn’t.
( iii) I first became ware of Simon Norfolk’s work when researching still life for TAoP (here). I became particularly interested in his simple images of found objects from the battlefields of Iraq and this inspired a small study of my own into the archeological evidence left by my father (here).
(3) Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin Books 2004 Kindle edition. London, Penguin Books
(4) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.
(11) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.
(12) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.
(1) Campany, David (2003) Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”’, first published in David Green ed., Where is the Photograph?, Photoworks/Photoforum, 2003. (accessed at David Campany’s website November 26th 2014) – http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/
(2) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf
(5) Wall, Jeff (1992) Dead Troops Talk (accessed at MOMA December 3rd 2104) – http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2007/jeffwall/
(6) Campbell, David (2003) Representing Contemporary War (accessed at David Campbell 29th November 2014) – https://www.david-campbell.org/wp-content/documents/Representing_contemporary_war.pdf
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(10) Miller, Lee (1945) Lee Miller Archives (accessed at lee miller.co.uk December 3rd 2014) – http://www.leemiller.co.uk/
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(16) Meyerowtiz, Joel (2011) – Aftermath – (accessed December 5th 2014 at Phaidon) – http://uk.phaidon.com/store/photography/aftermath-9780714862125/
(17) Doherty, Willie – Official website (accessed December 5th 2014) – http://williedoherty.com/home
(18) Seawright, Paul – Official website (accessed December 5th 2014) – http://www.paulseawright.com
(19) Squires, Russell (2014) The Lateness of Warm Photography (accessed at weareoca.com November 26th 2014) – http://weareoca.com/photography/the-lateness-of-warm-photography/
(20) Steel-Perkins, Chris. (2011) Tsunami Streetwalk 1 Kesennuma. Magnum Inmotion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays
Campany, David (2006) The Red House : A review of Broomberg and Chanarin’s book of the same name (accessed at Broomberg and Chanarin November 29th 2014) – http://www.choppedliver.info/red-house-text-by-david-campany/