Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Posts Tagged ‘war photography

The Photo of an Unknown War

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The blog likes to note there is often no truth in photography. What better photo to illustrate this point that this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart. 

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In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as the Dress Rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.

The photo, which does look like a poor Photoshop attempt, is often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa.

In that aspect, L’Humanité was closer to the truth (but perhaps accidentally). The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.

The photo first appeared fittingly in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 18, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Cal Whipple (1918 – 2013)

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Addison Beecher Colvin Whipple, writer and censorship fighter, died on March 17, aged 94.

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“Words are never enough,” wrote Life magazine in an editorial when it finally got the approval to reproduce the pictures of dead American soldiers in September 1943 (more). That permission, which came all the way from the president, would have been all but impossible if not for the tenacious efforts of Cal Whipple, Life’s Washington correspondent.

Rules then prohibited the publication of photos of the American dead, lest they damage morale on the home front. In his own words, Mr. Whipple, “went from army captain to major to colonel to general until [he] wound up in the office of an Assistant Secretary of the Air Corps.” to argue that these photos were what the home front needed. The Secretary decided to forward the photos to the White House, where President Roosevelt agreed that  the American public has grown complacent about the war and its horrific toll, and cleared their publication. 

As the consequence, war bond sales boomed, and although the censorship rule regarding the home front morale was abolished, the censorship itself would prove to be enduring. Censorship and self-censorship continued with the pictures from Dresden, Hiroshima, and even Auschwitz. The rule not to show faces of the American dead existed until the Korean War, which saw bans on photos showing the aftermaths by US bombings in North Korea, and of political prisoners.

It all changed in Vietnam, which would come to be known as the “first war to take place in America’s living rooms.” It was a conflict whose course unfolded in iconic photos, from the beginning to the end. After Vietnam, the military would never again allow journalists to have free rein in covering a war. The golden age of war photography, which nurtured such figures as Larry Burrows or Francoise Demulder, ended as abruptly as it began. In  modern wars, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in smaller conflicts in Grenada and Panama, reporters would be corralled into press pools or embeds and frequently threatened with revocation of credentials if they strayed from guidelines. 

With various newspapers looking back on Iraq War on this 10th Anniversary of its beginning with grand pictorial sideshows, it is sometimes very easy to forget what we see is more often than not authorized, sanitized, bowdlerized.But it is also comforting to remember that for images hidden away from us, there is always someone like Cal Whipple fighting for their inclusion into the recorded memory. 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 21, 2013 at 2:25 pm

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