The Power of Photojournalism in War

By Jason Etzel

In 1832 Senator William Learned Marcy spoke the phrase, “To the victor belong the spoils.” Although first spoken (or at least documented) this was not a new concept by any means for those who won a battle of any kind. With a victory you could design how it would be viewed to those alive [at the time] as well future generations who would read and learn what you left behind as history of this battle. This meant that selective editing could always be done by the victor, filtering words, omitting particular events or details, artistic renderings showing how they wanted the victory to be recorded.

And in 1832 this was still true, until technology changed how history would be written—by both those who triumphed and those who felt defeat—by the invention of the camera, it would now be seen unchanged. In the world we live in today, doctored images are common knowledge, we know now what is seen may or may not have been really there. For hundreds of years historical figures were seen only as their statues or oil painted portraits perceived them to be. Battles were drawn showing honor and courage without really showing tragedy, violence, or loss.

In 1839 when the camera was first shown to the public, everything became real and an instrument in the field of journalism. The first war images are credited to an anonymous American who took a number of daguerreotypes during the Mexican-American war in 1847, and for the first time the face of the soldier was seen. The first known war photographer was Carol Popp de Szathmari who took photos of various officers in 1853 and landscapes where battle took place in 1854 during the Crimean War. However it was in 1861 that a portrait photographer in New York City named Mathew Brady changed the world of photography and journalism as we know it.

Having mastered the new art of photography from his time studying under the skilled daguerreotypist Samuel Morse, Brady had a thriving portrait photography studio. His subjects included numerous historical figures including past and then present Presidents of the United States of America. When the first shots were fired of the American Civil War in 1861, and against the wishes of friends and family, Brady put the essentials of his studio into a wagon and made his way to the battlefield at Bull Run. At Bull Run Brady took images of the war-torn landscape of destroyed buildings and bridges as well as the dead littering the countryside.

At times he was so close he was nearly captured by the Confederate soldiers. This was not a commissioned painting, nor an article being written for a newspaper, to be released to the public. These were images being taken, processed, and printed from where it all happened and they spoke louder than any cannon fired during any war. Through the course of the Civil War, Mathew Brady and his team of photographers captured the bloodiest battles as well as the faces of the men who fought on both sides.

War was no longer a distant battlefield; it was piles of dead soldiers and a country tearing itself apart. Many feared on both sides that the images showing war would cause both an escalation to stop or continue the war. Photography became a weapon itself, as many photos were staged with bodies moved into positions to manipulate public perception of battles.

As the years passed so did the purposes of photography and war. It was used for reconnaissance, intimidation showing strength of arms and new weaponry, and even to confirm the deaths of famous figures such as Dale Titler’s photograph of the downed plane of the WWI German Ace Manfred von Richtofen more commonly known as “The Red Baron” to discourage the German people and lower moral.

The chaos and confusion of battle was illustrated to the world with Robert Capa’s images from the landing at Normandy for the D-Day invasion of Europe. Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J day in Times Square” have also become timeless images showing triumph and victory on distant shores as well as at home.

During the war in Vietnam, newspaper correspondent and columnist Joseph Galloway often fought alongside the troops he covered with his cameras, documenting the conflict around him.

Perhaps one of the most famous images of the century came from Eddie Adams with his portrait of an execution of a prisoner of war in 1968. It led to not only a Pulitzer Prize for Adams, but many claimed it changed the balance and political opinions of the war in Vietnam.

Nearly 150 years after Mathew Brady set out to capture the American Civil War, photojournalism still continues to advance, educate, and at times manipulate conflicts worldwide. Just as Andrew Jackson used paintings and monuments to tell stories of victory and triumph, leaders today use the press in all of it’s forms—particularly photography—to show the frozen moments in time that they want remembered.

Sometimes they can immortalize a great achievement and cement your place in history, however it can also backfire as President George W. Bush found out in 2003. By flooding the media with images of him on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a banner reading: “Mission Accomplished” many would believe the war ended that day in the Fall of 2003, however the conflict remains and now the banner is a mere punch line for a joke, and a large part of his presidential legacy.

Today’s media is no longer limited to just words, images, and video but also can include computer graphic based animations and renderings. For most, the portrait of Barack Obama altered by Shepard Fairey is considered a sign of change, others saw it as a violation of a law on the copyright of AP photographs. All the same it became part of everyday culture and awareness around the world.

The photojournalists are the eyes and the ears for the world. On this Veteran’s Day, it is important to remember and be grateful for those people who have been the eyes and the ears for us all—and the sacrifices they made to do so.

? Jason Etzel is a working photographer who is well respected in the photographic industry today. For 15 years he has worked for companies such as Unique Photo, B&H, and Dyna-Lite, providing sales, education, and research development of photographic products. In addition, he is also a frequent contributor to photographic publications such as Photo Insider and other photographic blogs. Even though he is based out of New Jersey, Jason is frequently seen from coast to coast at photographic events discussing the history of photography, where it is today, and where he hopes it is going tomorrow. Look for future articles by contributor Jason Etzel on


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