“With great power comes great responsibility”. This motto may be fictional, but it applies really well to war photographers. War photography has greatly evolved since its first use in 1849 in Rome. It is now easier than ever to document a conflict: a phone camera is enough. However, war photographers play a peculiar role in conflicts. Armed with their Nikons, they are actors in wars. Not only do they play a role on the ground, but they also play one back in their countries, for which a phone camera is not enough. Taking pictures is one thing, covering conflicts is a completely different responsibility. On the frontline, being a war photographer requires not only courage and strength but also listening capacities and empathy, not to mention excellent analytical abilities. Back in his or her society, the photographer’s work means taking part in building a representation of wars. The power of pictures lies in the fact that they are proofs that events did happen, that people suffered. They are the recipient of how a war will be remembered in the future. Every choice made by a photographer, therefore, influences the narrative about a conflict. This is why, on the one hand, war photographers are so passionate about their work and, on the other, feel useful against their impotence.
In which way do photographers play an essential role in building the representation as well as the narrative of wars?
When one thinks of war photographers, great names come to one’s mind. Most often, they are male names. But it is wrong to think that women photographers are not abundant. Inspired by an exhibition at the Museum of the Liberation in Paris(1), I decided to focus on women war photographers and analyze what they have to say, and if there are any differences between men and women photographers of wars.
A mission on the ground: how do photographers take the right picture?
The first aspect of a photojournalist’s work consists in preparing themselves to go to the frontline. From military equipment to training and first aid formation, photographers, who are particularly exposed, learn to protect themselves. Once they get to the zone of conflict, they still have to settle and find locals who are able to help them. Most of the time, photographers work with ‘fixers’, that is, local people, sometimes local photographers – in the case of Ukraine for instance –, who are willing to guide photojournalists. Being accompanied by someone who knows the area, has contact points, and speaks the local languages proves very helpful to foreign photographers. Moreover, photographers learn to be resourceful to get the pictures they want. It can be easier for women photographers to access certain places, especially in the Middle East. For instance, Christine Spengler(2) explains that, because both her hair and eyes are dark, she wore a hijab, hid her Nikon beneath it, and went unnoticed. People would even call her the Sawda, which means “the woman in black”.
Nevertheless, going on the frontline often reveals itself both stressful and upsetting. Photographers must deal with their emotions, including fear, sadness and even horror – Véronique de Viguerie explains she sometimes cries while taking pictures. But as she puts it, “fear allows her to be much more focused, much more intense, much more careful”(3).
Once photographers, equipped with their cameras in their hands, have found a subject of interest, another set of question appears before them. As Susan Sontag explains it in her collection of essays entitled On Photography, photography is closely related to ethics. She speaks of a “right to observe”, adding that photographers have a “predatory role”(4). Indeed, photographers spring unannounced in people’s lives to take their pictures. For many photographers, it has become important to obtain an individual’s authorization before taking the picture. That way, what seemed like aggression at first becomes a short-term relationship between the subject and the photographer. For her part, Christine Spengler underlines the direct look that characterizes her portraits. As she emphasizes, the frontal gaze proves that she “never ever takes stolen pictures”(5). In addition, she chose black and white colors for her war photos in order to respect the dignity and the modesty of the people she takes pictures of.
In war photography, on another note, it can be difficult to draw the line between interest and voyeurism. When confronted with horror, photographers do not always know when to stop taking or publishing pictures. Susan Sontag raised this issue in her essays, stressing that an enforced familiarity with pictures of horrors leads to a lack of reaction to it. Indeed, “ce qu’il y a de plus scandaleux dans le scandale, c’est qu’on s’y habitue” [what is scandalous with scandal is that one gets used to it] (6). Since the 2000s, many women photographers have decided to keep such pictures private, except when they wish to raise awareness about a cause, therefore solving this issue.
When thinking of war photography, people generally have in mind soldiers, weapons, and tanks. But, as it turns out, but there is much more to war photography than meets the eyes. As Christine Spengler puts it, “if you look at the TV for Ukraine, are there not even more women and children suffering than men?”(7). Similarly, some women photographers explain that they tend to photograph victims and pain more than men do. Christine Spengler gave the example of Patrick Chauvel, a distinguished Grand Reporter who only takes pictures of “men and shooters”. She emphasizes, however, that such a statement is not always true. There are indeed men, like Robert Capa – or Émeric Lhuisset today – who also photograph suffering individuals and victims. On the contrary, women like Catherine Leroy sometimes follow soldiers and take pictures of frontlines, battles, and weapons. Each photographer is unique.
Nevertheless, this tendency still often proves right. Véronique de Viguerie also notices a particular angle chosen by women in their pictures and their stories. For her, this is related to the fact women have easier access to certain spaces. Christine Spengler even speaks of an “osmosis”(8) she shares with some of her subjects, especially women because she herself is a woman.
Photographers are actors in the wars, not as combatants – although they are sometimes forced to get involved – but as witnesses. They take this role very seriously, prepare for it before going to the frontline, and make sure they take the right picture once on the ground. In the deep intricacies of wars, then, photographers take on a specific position.
Covering the warzone: the photographer’s responsibilities
One of war photographers’ roles is to inform. Émeric Lhuisset explains(9) that he always studies the situation before going on a mission. By doing so, he gets to know how the situation has developed and what is at stake. When he arrives on the ground, he tries to understand it better by directly consulting the people involved. This understanding of conflicts goes along with a distance the photographer keeps from his subject. For Émeric Lhuisset, such a distance is important because it enables photographers to be “more detached and, that way, offers another viewpoint”. It leads to more objectivity, which is essential to many photographers. Most of them try to follow both sides of the conflict they are covering when it is possible. Unfortunately, it is not always the case. In Ukraine, for instance, there are almost no photographers following the Russians. In Émeric Lhuisset’s opinion, this can be explained by the fact Russians have built the narrative of a “special operation” – which is not a war. It would therefore be uncomfortable for them to have war photographers with them. This an example of how photography and the narratives of war are interconnected.
Photographers have another peculiar role in wars. Nowadays, photos are always part of an informative warfare. This means both sides of a conflict often try to take control of the pictures which are taken. These pictures can represent sensitive military information but, most often, they are used for propaganda. Both these roles impose a great responsibility upon photographers.
On the one hand, they must be careful about what they photograph. Some people on the ground may be reluctant to trust photographers, fearing they might be spies. Nevertheless, this can be another advantage for women photographers. As Véronique de Viguerie describes, people are less wary of women on the frontline.
On the other hand, every image becomes a weapon in the war of propaganda. If photographers may accidentally reveal sensitive information, they might also turn out to be useful. Indeed, they participate in defending one side’s version, by advertising and relaying it. During Euromaidan, Émeric Lhuisset was in Ukraine(10). He photographed people protesting and interviewed them. Later, he put the pictures up, along with what people said, in the streets of a town in the Donbass area. When people saw them, they were surprised they actually had a lot in common with the people protesting, contrary to what Russian propaganda was saying.
Another responsibility of war photographers regards the relationship they build with their subjects. Photographers show a deep interest in them, not only by taking their pictures but also by trying to form a connection with them. Susan Sontag writes the photographer gains “their confidence”(11). And they must honor it. Inside communities that are stricken by war, photographers play an essential role in relaying stories to the world. Local people are often grateful because they feel photographers are voicing their concerns. As Émeric Lhuisset puts it about Ukraine, “by giving their voices back to these people, [he] allows them to be once again the actors of the writing of their own history”(12) while Russians are slowly making it disappear.
Instead of sensationalism, which she avoids, Christine Spengler(13) always looks for a relationship with her subject. That way, she has direct information about how the person lives and what he or she is going through. In her photo of a woman on the Polisario Front, this special connection she creates with her subject is the first step in making people more aware of what’s going on over there.
Once photographers have established contact with the people affected by the war, they take their pictures while paying attention to every single detail. This effort goes towards bringing the rightest representation possible back to their own countries.
Publishing their pictures: the photographers’ roles in building narratives
From the beginning of the twentieth century onward, photographs have taken an always more essential place in the news. With the Spanish War, for instance, the 1930s were a time of peculiar expansion for war photography. The image became a tool particularly sought-after because, contrary to drawings, it seemed like a perfect, unaltered, and trustworthy rendition of reality. This relation to truth is still crucial for war photographers. Both Émeric Lhuisset(14) and Christine Spengler(15) insist upon the fact they do not modify their pictures. Christine Spengler, comparing herself to Goya – who would draw sketches of executions to paint them exactly like they happened –, states she “do[es] not add anything”. Looking at her picture of the bombing of Phnom Penh, she asserts that “it’s the reality”, as strange as it may seem.
Of course, this idea has to be balanced. Images can be modified. Even if they are not, they are still always the result of subjective choices. Christine Spengler argues that if there are fifty photographers, “there will be fifty different angles”. War photographers choose their subjects, the place from which they take a picture, the distance, the framing, and so on.
Besides, Susan Sontag also criticizes the idea of pictures as the perfect representation of reality. She argues that “strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph”(16). To her mind, photos that show reality as it is do not help people understand what they represent. It is the photographer’s point of view as well as the text accompanying it that inform people.
The choices photographers make are not random. They come from the way photojournalists define their own roles. While interviewing photographers, I have jotted down two roles they assign themselves.
The first one is to raise awareness about unknown or little-known conflicts. Christine Spengler expresses(17) her will to “defend the oppressed” and “testify of rightful causes”, especially when they are either unknown or forgotten. For instance, she went to Eritrea and Chad to photograph what she calls “lost causes”. Once she has pictures, she can publish them in magazines, therefore making a wider audience aware of what is happening in these countries.
The second one is to change people’s views regarding well-known conflicts, or to improve them. That is how Émeric Lhuisset explains(18) why he went to Syria or why he covered the Maidan uprising.
One way or the other, there is always the idea of creating a narrative and bringing it back home in order to help people better understand a situation that is going on far away from them. Another mission taken on by photographers is linked to the knowledge that their images may become evidence in trials for war crimes, or even genocide. For Laurence Geai(19), this justifies her need to follow clues leading to war crimes.
Like Émeric Lhuisset, photographers “try to be in places where history is made”(20) but their pictures do not create history by themselves. It is their publication that propels them forward onto the scene of the making of history. That is where photographers play an essential role. Beyond the choices they make when taking a picture, they also choose which pictures they are going to send to magazines. Newspapers and magazines such as Life or Vu in the past or The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, Le Figaro play a great role by both sending photographers on missions and selecting the pictures they publish. This selection is greatly influenced by the society wherein it is published, its standards, and its vision of a given conflict. This explains why Caroline Brothers claims that an agency’s choice “produces a stereotypical or humdrum vision of reality” where “photography acts as a site for the construction of ‘a sort of abstract history’”(21).
But images also sometimes participate in building a very concrete history, for instance when they reveal something dramatic or hidden, like a war crime. When such photographs are published, they become history themselves. Our knowledge of past conflicts is engraved with the pictures which shocked and reshaped public opinion. The first image that comes to mind when thinking of the Vietnam war, for instance, is the photography of Kim Phuc, taken by Nick Ut. These icons are parts of the narrative that societies build with conflicts and wars.
Photographers play an essential role in building the representation as well as the narrative of wars in three ways.
Firstly, by documenting what they see on the frontline. This requires training and a peculiar resistance to fear. When they take a picture, while also respecting their subject’s right to the image, war photographers attempt at representing what they feel to be the true experience of the people involved in the war. It is where most differences between men and women can be seen. Indeed, women photographers regularly have access to places where men cannot go. They also focus on victims more than men.
Secondly, by acknowledging their own responsibilities on the frontline. Beyond documenting, the knowledge that their pictures will then be part of a war’s history deeply concerns photographers. They want the information they relay to be the best possible. They inform themselves and build a relationship with their subjects to make sure they get it right. They, therefore, become an important intermediary between events and narratives.
Finally, by making their pictures accessible to the public back in their societies. Once they’ve taken pictures, they publish them. Their images then become the representation people have in mind when thinking of a war. The choices photographers make to publish a picture or not thus participate in the building of the narrative of wars.
1. About war photography
- Barnades, Florent. « La fin du photojournalisme de guerre ? ».Médium, vol. 34, no. 1. January-March 2013. pp. 155-170.
- Brandon, Laura, Payne, Carol. « Guest Editors’ Introduction: Photography at War / Introduction au dossier : la photographie à la guerre. ». RACAR : Revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 39, no. 2. 2014. p. 1–13.
- Howard, Dick. « Quelle distance pour voir clair ? Chronique transatlantique (VI) ».Esprit, no. 372. 2011. pp. 191-195.
- Poivert, Michel. « Théâtre des dernières guerres ».Vacarme, vol. 37, no. 4. 2006. pp. 41-44.
- Amar, Pierre-Jean.Histoire de la photographie.Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2020.
- Brothers, Caroline. War and Photography: A Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1997
- Sontag, Susan. On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
- Sontag, Susan. Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
- Bouvet, Éric. « Ukraine, des photographes dans la guerre ». 21st of June 2022. Paris : LCP-Assemblée nationale.
- Fricke, Nils, Fritz, Johanna-Maria, Teshaieva, Mila. « Montrer la guerre : 2 photographes en Ukraine ». 29th of April 2022. Paris : ARTE Regards.
- Coste, Christine (modératrice), Geai, Laurence, Sharrock, Chloé, « Photographier la guerre aujourd’hui », Le Parlement de la photographie, Ministère de la Culture, 8 juin 2022, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Public Lecture.
- Barbaroux-Pagonis, Nina [for Les Déconnomistes]. « Véronique de Viguerie, photographe, témoin de guerre ». Aix en Provence : Cité du livre. 4th of December 2019.
- Chaverou, Éric, Vasak, Stanislas. « Images de la guerre en Ukraine : les regards du photographes William Keo et du chercheur André Gunthert ». Paris : France culture. 9th of April 2022.
- Gesbert, Olivia. « Quels rôles jouent les images dans la guerre ? », La Grande Table des Idées. Paris : Radio France. 14th of April 2022.
2. About photojournalists
- Amar, Marianne. « Les guerres intimes de Lee Miller ».Clio. Histoire, femmes et sociétés, vol. 20, no. 2. 2004. p. 11.
- Mayer, Marion. « Guerre en Ukraine : les photojournalistes, témoins du drame des civils ». La Croix, n°42293. 16th of April 2022.
- Sharrock, Chloe. « Ukraine : les portraits en guerre de Chloe Sharrock ». Libération, n°12719. 12th of May 2022.
- Spengler, Christine, Une femme dans la guerre, 1970 – 2005 : les rivages de la paix.
- Dupont, Louise. « Christine Spengler, une vie de femme photographe de guerre ». 1st of April 2022. Paris: France 24.
- Bécard, Catherine. « ‘Témoigner des causes justes’ : Christine Spengler raconte comment est née sa vocation », L’invité de 7h50 du weekend. Paris: France Inter. 24th of April 2022.
- Devillers, Sonia. « Christine Spengler, photographe de guerre », L’instant M. Paris: France Inter. 6th of June 2022.
- Leys, Claire, Michon, Esther. « Guerre en Ukraine : comment photographier l’horreur?, avec Chloé Sharrock et Nicolas Jimenez ». Paris: Le Monde. 12th of April 2022.
- Sorbier, Marie. « Les femmes, des photographes de guerre comme les autres. Avec Sylvie Zaidman », Affaire en cours. Paris : France culture. 8th of March 2022.
- Van Reeth, Adèle, « La photo de guerre, c’est risquer sa vie pour sauver celle des autres. Avec Laurence Geai, photojournaliste », Les chemins de la philosophie. Paris: France culture. 25th of March 2022.
- Chépeau, Anne. « Montrer sa compassion de l’humanité : une exposition consacrée à des femmes photographes de guerre à Paris ». Paris : France Info. 8th of March 2022.
- Charrier, Liliane. « Femmes, reporters de guerre et photographe de l’humain ». Paris : TV5 Mondes. 28th of March 2022.
- Beckmann, Anne-Marie, Korn, Felicity. Women war photographers: from Lee Miller to Anja Niedringhaus, Munich: Prestel. 2019.
- Les femmes photographes de guerre. 8 Mar.-31 Dec. 2022, Museum of the Liberation of Paris – Museum of the general Leclerc – Museum Jean Moulin and Kunstpalast of Düsseldorf, Paris.
- Photographies en guerre. 6 Apr.-24 July 2022, Museum of the Army, Paris.
- Lhuisset, Émeric. Interview. Conducted by Priscille de La Hougue. 10th of June 2022.
- Spengler, Christine. Interview. Conducted by Priscille de La Hougue. 13th of June 2022.
(3) Barbaroux-Pagonis, Nina pour Les Déconnomistes, « Véronique de Viguerie, photographe, témoin de guerre », Aix en Provence : Cité du livre, 4 décembre 2019, [disponible en ligne], URL : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T31PvNfufGs
(19) Coste, Christine (modératrice), Geai, Laurence, Sharrock, Chloé, « Photographier la guerre aujourd’hui », Le Parlement de la photographie, Ministère de la Culture, 8 juin 2022, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Public Lecture.