The first photograph was taken almost 200 year ago (Hirsch, 2000:12). Since then, wars have been one of the most photographed events in human history as, beginning with the 1846-48 Mexican War, cameras have had their lens on the battlefield (Lenman, 2005). Although television, social media, and online videos have reduced the relevance of unmoving scenes, photographs still have the power to freeze a very specific instant and show the emotion of an image to make the public reflect about it (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010:23). Furthermore, photographs can also be used as propaganda in favor of or against war. However, in many war photographs, it is the one-sided perspective and the information not seen in the photograph that allows them to give off a certain, often biased, impression. In this paper, three pictures have been selected for analysis. They come from different wars, but are all some of the most memorable pictures of the 20th century. Additionally, they were all taken in wars in which The United States was involved, though portrayed in different roles: the hero or the merciless destroyer. The first picture to be analyzed is the raising of the American flag in Iwo Jima during World War II[i]. The other two pictures were taken during the Vietnam War. The first is of a Vietcong being executed by the American allies[ii] and the second is of the little girl running naked after being burned by napalm that was dropped by the American allies[iii].
The historic photograph showing the raising the Flag on Iwo Jima was taken on February 23, 1945 by Joe Rosenthal. It depicts five American soldiers raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi in Japan, during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. It came to be regarded in the United States and in the world as one of the most significant and recognizable images of war. It later became part of the collective memory of the American people, from on a US Post Office stamp[iv] to having a monument[v] of its own in Washington DC.
However, though many do not know this, this picture was actually from the second flag that was raised in that hill. A previous flag was raised the day before, but it was considered too small. Therefore, understanding the opportunity that this image would have in increasing public support for the American war effort, commanders ordered a second – and bigger – flag raising, which was properly filmed and photographed. This is a common practice undertaken by war photographers: deceiving the public by staging war pictures and thus creating more dramatic scenes (Carruthers, 2000:70).
This picture is one the most classic examples of the use of media in state propaganda during a “Total War”. It is an extremely patriotic picture that was used as national publicity to encourage support of The United States effort in the war, clearly showing the American point of view in the conflict. In a “Total War” such as World War II, all national resources were put in place to help with the war effort. Healthy men went to fight and women and the elderly helped in the production of military equipment in civilian factories. This national engagement is justified by the fear of “total defeat”, a fundamental corollary of “Total War” (Carruthers, 2000:56).) Furthermore, according to Kaldor’s theory of Old War which is a characteristic of a “Total War,” the conflict is funded by national effort and that is specifically how this picture was utilized. Seeing inspiring photographs like this encouraged Americans to participate in such activities. Plus, such photographs were also used as propaganda to help the American government to sell war bonds, which helped finance military operations and other expenditures in times of war, to its population.
Analyzing picture 1 itself, one can see all the heroism of the moment: soldiers raising a flag in the terrain which was previously held by the enemy. However, what was left out of the image are all of the enemy victims and the American fatalities that made it possible for this picture to be taken, thus sanitizing the image (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010:20). Although a video[vi] of the event exists, the photograph transmits a greater drama of the episode. In the video, the act of raising the flag is quite fast, whereas in the picture the act seems to take an eternity. Such a picture implies that war is something heroic and therefore acceptable and even admirable, thus legitimizing violence. This is a classic example of cultural violence, where murder on behalf of the country is considered justified (Galtung, 1990: 292). If viewed from the Japanese perspective, however, this image can have a completely different meaning. While it is an image that might bring pride to the American people, for the Japanese it brings nothing but negativity as they have been occupied and humiliated in their homeland.
While the photograph of the Iwo Jima flag raising offers a heroic, positive, and supportive role of the Americans in war, the other two pictures show exactly the opposite. They demonstrate the negative side of war, showing civilian casualties and war crimes and offer a critical representation of the American war effort during the Vietnam War.
Picture number 2 shows the second day of the Tet Offensive, where amid ferocious street fighting, a Vietcong was captured and brought to Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police. Using his personal revolver, General Loan swiftly executed him in front of Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and a television cameraman. The photograph and footage were broadcast worldwide, spurring the anti-war movement; Adams won a 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his photograph (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010:24).
Further studying picture number 2, one can see an example of the most brutal aspect of war, the moments before someone is killed, which create a strong emotional impact against war itself (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010:25). Although there is also a video[vii] of the same scene showing the execution, the picture highlights the drama since, without the video or history knowledge, it is not possible to know if the officer actually pulled the trigger. Moreover, it shows the cowardice of that act, where someone executes a prisoner who has his hands tied behind his back. With the executor being trained and allied with the Americans, this puts the Americans and their allies in a very bad light. From the perspective of North Vietnam, the other side, this picture portrays the brutality of their enemy: allowing them to use this photograph as propaganda for their own troops by showing how merciless their enemy is. Furthermore, it can be used to suggest to North Vietnamese troops that it is better to fight until the end and have a honorable death than to surrender and be executed as a prisoner, as the man in the photograph was.
However, what is not known just by looking at the picture is that Lém (the Vietcong being shoot) was part of a death squad and was arrested after murdering the family members of some police officers. Although this fact does not excuse an execution of a Prisoner of War, it would probably reduce the sympathy the public felt for him, if just just looking at the picture without the background story.
Picture number 3 it is considered one of the most memorable and haunting images of the Vietnam War. It is Nick Ut’s photo of a naked girl, Kim Phuc, running from her village which was just napalmed by South Vietnamese planes on June 8th, 1972. Kim Phuc was badly burned and tore off her burning clothes. By examining picture 3, one can clearly see the desperation on Kim Phuc’s face together with the crying boy to her left, creating an extreme emotional impact and even aversion, where one would even avoid looking at the picture a second time.
Furthermore, a young, burned girl shows one of the ugliest faces of War: innocent civilians as victims or, using the Pentagon’s modern term, “Collateral Damage.” which is, in theory, minimized with modern airstrikes (Thussu and Freedman, 2003:73). Therefore, this picture gives the point of view of the civilians caught in the cross-fired, one that any military superior would try to hide. Unlike the previous two images, it is hard to interpret picture 3 as anything but the horror of war, no matter if one is on the American or North Vietnamese side.
As with all of the pictures, one cannot get all of the information just by looking at the image. In this case, what is missing in the picture is the aftermath of the event. Just by looking at that frozen moment, the spectator might wonder what happened to the little girl: if she survived, grew up or led a happy life. However, as the other previous pictures, a video[viii] was also made during the event. By only watching the video and not looking at the picture, the whole event might seem a little less dramatic (although still quite intense), since in the video the girl is not crying and afterwards one can see the soldiers taking care of her and giving her water. Ultimately, the video also reveals that she survived.
Both pictures number 2 and number 3 have influenced the anti-war movement worldwide and in The United States against the Vietnam War, which was considered a “Limited War,” since the United States did not use all its resources available to fight the war. So, for the American public, a loss in the Vietnam War was not seen as something completely unavoidable, having far less consequences for civilians at home. Indeed, some people even blame the media America’s loss in the Vietnam War, which was considered the first televised war (Carruthers, 2000:108). Specifically, the media coverage of the Tet Offensive (picture number 2), reinforced the sentiment in The United States that the Vietnam War could not be won (Carruthers, 2000:117). Realizing the power that media had in the public opinion about war, The United States military understood the importance of controlling the images that would come out during future wars (Carruthers, 2000:120). After this failure in monitoring the media during the Vietnam War, the US military then started to make intensive use of embedded reporters who would travel together with the troops and would see, photograph, and report exactly what the Pentagon would allow them to (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005:111). Any image or story that would have a negative connotation to the American War effort would be censured, such as the victims of American airstrikes or bodies and coffins of dead American soldiers.
Finally, the power of independent media in the journalistic field can be also seen as a tool to achieve peace by providing reliable account of what really is going on in a war (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005:1) instead of just serving as propaganda machines that allow governments to justify their violence. By eliminating one of the forms of cultural violence by showing the horrors of war to the public and thus creating an anti-war sentiment, media photography can reduce war and thus direct violence orchestrated by the government (Galtung, 1990:293).
To conclude, the analyses of the three photographs above demonstrate the power and influence of war photography. The first photograph was used to gather support for the United States during a “Total War”, and the second two were used to create an anti-war sentiment for the same nation in the “Limited War”, thus being important tools in the propaganda and counter propaganda of warfare (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010:20). With modern technology, watching videos online or on cellphones from different sources has become one of the main ways that the public can use media to access news, reducing the prominence of still images. However, war photography, by freezing dramatic moments, still possess a resonance that moving images do not (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010:23). To this day, a photograph can still galvanize emotions to create an impact that says more than a thousand moving pictures while managing to help change public opinion about war and peace.
Carruthers, S. (2000). The media at war. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), pp.291-305.
Hirsch, R. (2000). Seizing the light. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Hoskins, A. and O’Loughlin, B. (2010). War and media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Lenman, R. (2005). The Oxford companion to the photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lynch, J. and McGoldrick, A. (2005). Peace journalism. Stroud, [England]: Hawthorn Press.
Thussu, D. and Freedman, D. (2003). War and the media. London: Sage.