First World War Photography

What makes First World War photography so special?

This question is haunting me as I (try to) write my book. I started researching this topic in 2008, basically because I didn’t know anything about it. By the end of the PhD I loved the topic, but shortly after I completely disengaged with it.

Four years after my viva, I’m taking a fresh look at the material, and this is what I’m finding.

place-darmes

Verdun

Jay Winter said in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning that the scale of loss created the necessity of new languages. Survivors needed new ways to express, communicate and understand what was happening. Modernism can be understood as a reaction to the inability of traditional languages to express new ways of dying, mourning, etc.

Was photography affected by this necessity of new languages?

The First World War was not the first war to be photographed -we have plenty of war photographs before 1914. It was neither the first war fully ‘covered’ by photojournalists, as the Spanish Civil War was. But as many authors have argued, we can see both tradition and new, modern languages in its production. We can both find very traditional portraits, and images of body parts that later inspired surrealists like Andre Breton.

While the focus of scholarship has been on how photographic languages changed, I’m more interested in photographic practices. What did it mean to photograph the war? How did photographing the war affect the ways in which people take, preserve, share and pose for photographs?

And what can photographic practices tell us about First World War experiences?

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this period was the creation of military photographic services, which had the explicit purpose of documenting the war. It is very easy to understand this production as mere propaganda, and thus focusing on how images like the one I posted above propagated nationalistic values. However, if we look closely at services such as the French Section photographique de l’armée (SPA), we’ll see that it was not that simple.

First of all, because the military authorities soon realised that the same images were interpreted in opposite ways by different audiences. Where the French population saw reassuring images of soldiers having some rest in clean camps, the neutral countries saw a lazy army unable to counteract the technological and military superior German army. Therefore, the SPA put a lot of effort in controlling the physical distribution of images. If they could not control the meaning of images, then they would control the circumstances in which images were saw and understood. This is why the SPA not only distributed photographing prints, but also albums and postcards, and organised national and international exhibitions. Each of these items was designed for a particular audience: French population, kids, neutral countries, allies, etc.

Shifting the focus away from the images to the mechanisms of control and distribution of physical material leads to examining the material practices of photography. For instance, it shows that war photography became a business, as photographs were sold and bought. How was this market regulated? More importantly, which were the suppliers of the SPA? Can this history of the SPA reveal more about French war economy?

It also puts the archives into a new perspective. While only some of the photographs would circulate as propaganda, all the images would be preserved as part of the war archives. How was the ideology of these archives based on its material disposition? Who was working in the archives, making the (diverse) classifications? Where were the photographs stored, and how?

By asking these questions, I hope to demonstrate that photography became a tool to engage with the new conditions imposed by the war, not just because of the images, but also because of the practices it allowed to develop. Photography involved actions. Some were adaptations of old actions; some were completely new. But in all cases, the camera, the print, the album, the archive, allowed engaging  in a very material way with what has happening around.

Albert Samama-Chikli, fort de Vachereauville, Verdun, 1917

SPA photography Albert Samama-Chikli in Verdun

 

 

 

On Dancing and Writing

Sometimes (the good times) writing makes me feel high -SO high. I get so excited, I enjoy it so much that I can’t describe it with words.

Dancing provokes me very similar feelings. It’s the only thing that makes me feel that good. And I’ve just realised why.

I’ve never been very regular at dancing. I’ve tried many different styles in my life (contemporary/jazz, belly dance, even bollywood for a week) but only I’ve only committed to two dances: ballet and swing, and both during my adulthood.

Swing and ballet look like very, very different dances, and indeed they are. But they have something in common: connection. Swing dance is all about connecting with you partner. It’s a conversation, where partners act and react to each other.You can learn the steps, but there’s no way to do them if you don’t follow the pulse of your partner. Dancing as a follower, I basically follow instructions: my partner decides which move we’re going to do. But if the lead just moves you mechanically, without listening to what you might offer, it’s boring and plain and a waste of time. The best dances are when we both actively respond to each other’s moves, and we laugh and maybe make mistakes, but we’re both THERE. Connecting.

Ballet is not (at its basic level at least) a partner dance. But again, it’s all about connecting. I was doing ballet during the last months of my thesis, and the year when I was unemployed and without any prospects of finding a job in Spain. Dancing ballet connected me with my body. It gave me a sense of control in a time when I had no control at all about important aspects of my life like, you know, work. Focusing on my insteps, my legs, my stomach, my back, my chest, my neck, my head, my arms and my hands all at the same time gave me a sense of being there, of connecting with me.

Connection is the key to dance, but it is also the key to writing. Sometimes meetings, emails, forms, bibliographies and notes eat up all my time and I forget why I’m doing what I do. Too much to do and too little time to do it means that we often rush to finish things. As a consequence, I don’t enjoy them anymore. Writing becomes a boring, plain, mechanical dance with a non-listening partner.

So, now I’m trying to stop, breath, and connect with what I’m writing. Remember why I do it, why I’m passionate about that particular thing in particular, or about the implications of that specific bit of the research. Think about the actual people I’m writing about. When I get it, this connection with my writing almost feels like a physical sensation -an agitation in my chest.

I know this connection is not particular to dancing and writing, and other things like yoga, meditation or photography have the same effects in other people. But I had never thought about writing as dancing, and suddenly it all makes sense.