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Bearing Witness: War Through the Eyes of the Photographer

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WATCH- WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

Hilary Roberts, Head Curator of the Photograph Archive at London’s Imperial War Museum, describing the prototypical war photographer:

“War photography either creates 
or attracts to itself an especial breed of 
men—men who are either so engrossed 
in their craft, or so constituted mentally 
and physically that the riskiness of their
 work has very little effect on them—and 
is certainly no deterrent.” These words were written in July 1917 by Basil Clark, a British official correspondent covering the western front during the First World War. They are among the earliest descriptions of the qualities popularly associated with the profession of war photographer today…

War is one of
 the most intense human experiences, and it compels those involved to bear witness. A camera is a tool that many will use to this end, regardless of risk. Technical skills, equipment, motivation, and forms of exploitation may vary, but together, the work of official, commercial, and private photographers forms the genre of war photography. The importance of this genre was described by Lord Beaverbrook, British minister of information and enabler of Canadian official photography during the First World War:

Photography… once regarded as the most instantaneous of all arts… has also proved to be one of the most permanent recorders. The events and the men may pass, but the photographic plates remain as an indelible record. Five, or ten, or twenty five years from now, they will be shown to us and our sons, and will link the decades together in a way unimaginable by our ancestors.


WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY  is on view through September 29, 2013. Be sure to check the calendar for related events throughout the summer.

  • Hilary Roberts, from “War Photographers: A Special Breed?” in WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath (Houston, Texas: Museum of Fine Arts, 2012), 8-14.