On War Photography: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

The photojournalist creed is that news photographs are neither staged nor edited.  Credibility depends on the collective belief of editors, readers, and peers that a photojournalist’s work represents objective reality.  Of course there is artistry and craft involved in technical choices about cameras and film and in subjective decisions about which frame of many to transmit and publish.  But the basic premise is that photographs, especially those taken of conflict, constitute reliable documentary evidence.

Photojournalist Brian Walski, for example, was scandalized early in the Iraq War when he merged two pictures together to create a more striking image that was subsequently published in the Los Angeles Times.  Walski was fired and the Times forced to issue an apology for violating press photography ethical prohibitions on altering original photographs.


Later, New York Times photographer Damon Winter earned prizes for photographs taken in Afghanistan with an Iphone.  But controversy arose concerning Winter’s use of the Hipstamatic editing app.  To photojournalist purists, doing so represented an egregious after-the-fact manipulation of images meant to register as “authentic” and “credible.”


But Winter was not the only one who experimented with up-to-the-minute apps and techniques.  Ann Davlin, in an article for the photography website Photodoto called “The Latest Photographic Trends to Defeat Your Competitors,” surveyed Instagram to determine what were the most popular editing tricks of the first decade of the new millennium–a period that roughly coincides with our contemporary wars.  Intrigued by the article, I searched the Internet and my own stock of photographs for war images that also illustrate the techniques Davlin describes.

The most popular trend Davlin notes is one I’ve already mentioned:  “phoneography,” or the use of phone cameras.  I’ve featured Bill Putnam’s work many times on this blog because I think the world of it. Putnam is a hardcore camera geek who Tweets things like “The @16x9inc adapter is Heavy. Solid. Huge, bigger than I expected. But workable. Same compression of a 60 but view of a 27. #dlsr #video.  But on his last deployment to Afghanistan, he took many pictures with an Iphone and used Hipstamatic to enhance them.  The Iphone, he reports, was just ever-handy, and potential subjects rarely blanched at requests for pictures.


Second on Davlin’s list is “macrophotography,” or extreme close-ups. Again I’ll use a Bill Putnam example:


“HDR photography” refers to “high dynamic range” manipulation and editing of images to create special lighting effects.  Sounds technical, but you’ll recognize the effect as soon as you see it below:


“Light painting” refers to emphasizing or highlighting streaks of light:


Davlin’s next category is “nostalgic photography,” or the creation of vintage effects through the use of apps such as Hipstamatic.  USAF airman Ed Drew took nostalgic photography a step further by actually employing 19th-century tintype techniques to capture pictures of his fellow airmen in Afghanistan:


“Panoramic” or “wide-angle photography” is the last of the popular special effects listed by Davlin.  A great example is below:


In addition to the categories proposed by Davlin, a few other motifs or trends exemplify contemporary combat photography.  The first is night optic technique and style:


The second is not so much a style or technique but a contemporary means of distributing and consuming images:  photography (and video) that reflects the influence of reality TV, video share services such as YouTube, TV news video, and close circuit surveillance aesthetics.  The video below, taken by a security camera at a small outpost in Afghanistan, is not for the faint-hearted.  Live footage taken about five miles away from where I was at the time, it shows a car bomb explosion that killed 13 Afghan children.


My final category is photography that reflects the aesthetics of drone warfare or first-person shooter games.  My examples are not actual photographs from the warzones, but I little doubt that envisioning the war from the aspect of a UAV reigning carnage from the sky or a soldier aiming down the barrel of a weapon permeates our optical sense of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have unfolded:


War photojournalism and artistic photography bring to the fore questions about treating violence and suffering as aesthetic subjects. How are we supposed to respond when we view graphic images that seem to glorify or prettify war?  On what terms can a graphic image be considered beautiful?  The ethical and aesthetic questions become even more complicated when photographers self-consciously manipulate images using the latest technology to generate effect.  I’ll have more to say on these questions in future posts.

War Photography: Ed Drew’s Wild Blue Yonder

Ed DrewEd Drew is a US Air Force staff sergeant who is receiving publicity for his arresting photographs of fellow members of his helicopter squadron in Afghanistan.  He speaks engagingly about his photos and views on art at this link, and he maintains a blog that features his photography before, during, and after his deployment as well as his poetry.  Most remarkable about his Afghanistan photos is that they are “tintypes” or “wet plates”—a technique employed by Civil War photography pioneers such as Mathew Brady, but one that is far too cumbersome to be practical these days.  Drew’s inspired decision to shoot using such archaic technology lends his subjects a timeless, stately, and elegiac feel. Because the photos depend on such long exposure and development times, they convey deep stillness and penetration, as if their subjects gave up more and more of their souls the longer the camera lingered.  The choice of medium connects contemporary service with older traditions uncomplicated by problems associated with modernity, and suggest that soldiering is experienced and understood individually and in small units, shorn of global politics and large-scale social consequences.

Or, perhaps, the old-time-iness of Drew’s photos calls into question exactly those things—how dare we associate the high-tech, rigged-out warriors of the 21st-century with Brady’s bewhiskered 19th-century generals and battlefield dead—farmboys from north and south who fought the Civil War in bare feet?

Drew Squad

I’m on surer ground when I allow Drew’s photos—which I love—to trigger a train of memories about my own interactions with Air Force personnel in Afghanistan, of which there were many.  For example, I was and remain curious about the perspective of the airmen stationed at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan, that purgatory through which soldiers and Marines passed on their way to and from Afghanistan hell.  Even more I wonder about the small groups of airmen (some of whom were women) who made their way all the way downrage to the tiny FOBs on which I did my tour.  All were great people, all were competent in their jobs, but the evidence that they had volunteered to serve their country specifically NOT by being placed in the way of direct fire weapons registered clearly on their faces upon arrival.  Maybe not scared, but confused and dismayed at the proximity of so many  Army infantry bubbas, men who daily rose to the challenge of rolling out the gate with a certain nonchalance or even swagger.

Not to be snarky, because Drew and his unit, an elite Combat Rescue team in Kandahar, saw plenty of action, but it is interesting that most of his photographic subjects are airmen decked out in soldierly kit and weaponry, with the hardened visages of experienced ground-pounding troops.  In truth, “caveats” protected most Air Force personnel in Afghanistan; they served base jobs and were prohibited from missions deemed likely to see combat.  But on the new-age circular battlefield, anything could happen anytime to anyone.  I’ve written elsewhere about an Air Force medic, who while on a routine supply run, found himself in a battle patching up dozens of US, Afghan army, and Afghan civilian casualties.  I also think of an Air Force captain who in response to a crisis was sent into sector as head of a squad of US Army soldiers to guard a lonely Afghan crossroads near the Pakistan border.  Almost immediately, his squad was hit and suffered casualties.  As night fell and bad weather set in, he found himself with wounded to care for, low water and ammunition, sketchy radio communication, and no hope of resupply, reinforcement, or evacuation until morning.  Not the most dire situation ever, from an infantryman’s perspective, but probably more than the Air Force captain bargained for when he raised his right hand.  For me, that sense of disorientation–an airman (and an artist at that) caught in a grunt’s war–helps explain Ed Drew’s curious eye and artistic hunger.

Ed Drew
Ed Drew

This post is dedicated to all the Air Force personnel with whom I served at Camp Clark and FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2008-2009.

Images copyright Ed Drew, courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco. Robert Koch Gallery website here.

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