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.
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.