How Photography Shapes Our Views of War

Over the last nearly 200 years, war photography has been used to communicate both truth and propaganda about conflicts around the world. War photographers and journalists put their lives on the line to capture the realities of war—but in addition to the risk, danger, and courage involved, these photographers play another important, often overlooked role: they influence how we view and interpret war:

As this presentation from Seeker Stories demonstrates, we look to photography to see (or fail to see) the truth behind the triumphs and terrors, the soldiers and citizens, and the violence and victories that are part of every war—and our view is framed at least partially through the photographer’s eyes, through their lens.

war photographer

But even prior to the invention of cameras, war was documented in other ways:

“Before photography, wars were reimagined on the canvas—heroic paintings created by artists who weren’t there, many times completed long after the battles were over. But when people started to photograph war, these images helped bring the realism and the horror of it to the world, to the people living far away from the conflict. These images had an immediate impact on how we saw war.”

war painting

The American Civil War was the first conflict photographers were able to document extensively.

“These pictures documented soldiers, both living and dead, in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. The camera technology at the time couldn’t capture action — no bullets flying, no soldiers running—but it could show the impact and the consequences of war.”

Civil War battlefield photo

World War I saw the introduction of censoring photos—both to protect the troops and their locations, as well as to preserve morale at home. By World War II, the censoring continued, but war photography had developed into a propaganda tool for both sides. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that people were again exposed to the un-glossed-over horrors of war, resulting in protests and widespread negativity about the war effort.

Vietnam War photo

Today, war journalists and photographers have access to more equipment and technology than ever before, allowing the media and people back home to have nearly real-time access to what’s going on around the world.

war journalists

“Photographers today are putting themselves on the front lines of violence around the world in a fight to bring you the truth. What you do with that truth…well, that’s up to you.”

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