Portraits of War: Photography and Protest
First published in Germany in 1924, Ernst Friedrich's great anti-war classic War against War! features an extremely gruesome montage of war photographs, collected as a protest against World War I. Juxtaposed with propagandistic pictures of military regimes and labeled with ironic, sarcastic captions, these photographs revealed the brutal reality of war and its horrifying consequences. Beginning with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons and concluding with haunting pictures of military cemeteries, pages are filled with images such as the dead on battlefields, destroyed buildings, ravaged forests, skeletal Armenian children, starving civilians, army executions, and a grisly section titled 'The Face of War', showing 24 close-ups of soldiers with shocking facial wounds..
Reactions by the war-mongers were typical during the Great War: Governments and patriotic organizations denounced the book, police raided bookstores and public lawsuits were brought against the public display of war photographs. On the other end, left-wing writers, artists, intellectuals and anti-war leagues supported the publication and claimed that it would have a decisive effect on public opinion.
According to Douglas Kellner, the translator of War against War, Friedrich's realization that “photographs could be employed as documentary evidence and, at the same time as a provocation towards pacifism” was a new idea as yet unexplored by others. A hardworking activist, Friedrich set up an international Anti-War Museum in Berlin and put all his energies in the collection and publication of anti-war materials. This museum was later destroyed by the Nazis and Friedrich was imprisoned for a period of time. Despite imprisonment and destruction of the museum, Friedrich reopened his peace museum in Belgium and continued to agitate against Fascism. This museum was destroyed again by the Nazis when they invaded Belgium.
Let us move ahead 60 years. Kellner writes:
“In this context, Friedrich's strategy of documentation becomes especially significant. To some extent, it was visual documentation of the horrors of the Vietnam war–both visual images reproduced in newspapers and magazines, as well as television images of "the living room war"– that helped produce public outrage and opposition to the war and that hastened its conclusion. But what mass images of the Central America conflicts do we see today? Who could support military aid for the Contras in Nicaragua when confronted with pictures of the destruction and murder carried out by the Contras against the Nicaraguan people? And who could celebrate American "victories" in Grenada and bombing of Libya when confronted with pictures of the innocent people maimed and killed in these actions?”
In this case, the objectivity of photography is subverted by the subjectivity of opinion. The epitome of authenticity and presence, photographs (despite the ease of digitally manipulation) are generally accepted by the public as a means of authentic documentation. While reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, I noticed a similar argument: Sontag begins the book by briefly examining Virginia Woolf's anti-war essay Three Guineas, eventually suggesting that "photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric" which in many ways simply agitate and "create the illusion of consensus.
Sontag goes on to suggest that the photographs of war could function not only to reject conflict and the notion of war but also to fuel further aggression and militancy. For Sontag, to read only abhorrence and rejection of war in photographs (like Woolf did) is to dismiss politics and history. Photographs could be manipulated and captioned to serve as tools of propaganda, which happened in the nationalist rebellion in Spain and the early 90s Serbia-Bosnia conflict.
“The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photographs, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it” (39)
Sontag’s opinion on the effectiveness of war photographs as an anti-war instrument is apparent:
"The destructiveness of war is not in itself an argument against waging war unless one thinks (as few people actually do think) that violence is always unjustifiable, that force is always and in all circumstances wrong – wrong because as Simone Weil affirms in her sublime essay on war, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force” that violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.”
I agree with Sontag’s statement. In many ways, this reflects the present state of affairs; war photographs are not generally prohibited but rather displayed to excess. Public beheadings of hostages in Iraq over the Internet, Abu Ghraib prison photos… the list goes on. Shock therapy isn’t working. We protest, but they don’t listen. Atrocities go on.
While anti-war films like Alan Resnai’s Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) followed Friedrich’s shock therapy, contemporary films have utilized more sarcastic juxtaposition. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 is a primary example. While stylistically different, both films ultimately aim to influence opinion. However, Moore’s film has been the target of much heated criticism, while Resnais’s film was generally lauded as one of the greatest war documentaries ever made.
But I digress. What can the arts do in the present media-saturated environment? Sontag offers a maxim to follow in all circumstances:
No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.
Ernst Friedrich’s Pacifistic Anarchism by Douglas Kellner. Link
Website for Ernst Friedrich’s Anti-War Museum in Belgium. Link
A site with some graphic pictures found in War against War! Link