Remembering War through Photographs

Photography has long played a key role in how we remember war, both as societies and as individuals, says Pippa Oldfield, author of Photography and War, a new introduction to photography’s most emotive subject.


Post-war remembrance and commemoration are fundamental stages in war. My new book, Photography and War, explores the many ways in which photography intertwines with armed conflict. The American Civil War (1861—5) prompted a huge appetite for souvenir portraits of soldiers before they went to war. Many photographers set up tents and cabins in military zones to tap into this lucrative market: in 1862, the New York Tribune declared that no army camp was free from the ‘omnipresent artists in collodion and amber-bead varnish’.

Photographs became important keepsakes of soldiers, treasured by the loved ones left behind and, increasingly, widows and orphans. A tintype by an unknown maker illustrates this eloquently: a young girl wearing mourning ribbons clasps her hands protectively around a cased photograph depicting a Union cavalryman, presumably her father. Photographs have a peculiar power to stand proxy for an absent loved one, offering comfort to the mourner as well as an aid to memory.

Above: Unidentified photographer, girl in mourning dress, c. 1861–70, sixth-plate tintype, hand-coloured, in case. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington, DC (Prints and Photographs Division).

Throughout my book, I show how photographs are not just images, but manifestly physical objects, to be touched, passed round to family members and perhaps wept over. Photo albums of servicemen and women are particularly rich memory-objects, which can evoke feelings of pride, camaraderie and adventure as well as more painful recollections.

Sister Sara ‘Josie’ Kane, who served as a nurse in Malta in the First World War, compiled snapshots in a mass-produced album decorated with floral emblems. Kane’s albums are a collision of masculine and feminine pictorial conventions. While the subject matter indicates the harsh realities of wartime nursing, such as an image of an amputee patient swathed in blankets, it is clear that Kane also experienced the war as a period of independence and utility, even a time she remembers as ‘Hap’ee Days’.

Above: Sister Sara ‘Josie’ Kane, ‘Hap’ee Days: Enright and Self  in Malta, 1915’, silver gelatin print in photo album. Courtesy University of Leeds Library Special Collections (Liddle Collection).

Photographs can serve as markers of the traces of war. During and immediately after the First World War, photographic guidebooks were published to facilitate visits to the battlefields. The Michelin Guide to Ypres (1919) offered the visitor comprehensive surveys of the key sites of conflict. As time passed and the terrain changed, former radar operator Rose E. B. Coombs, exhaustively mapped and photographed the sites of battles as well as graves, memorials and museums. Her book Before Endeavours Fade, first published in 1976, has become the indispensable guide for veterans and their descendants.

More recently, the contemporary artist Chloe Dewe Mathews investigated the sites where British, French and Belgian soldiers were shot by their own side for cowardice and desertion. The landscapes and scenes of Shot at Dawn are powerful precisely because no violence is explicitly shown: imagination is required to fill in the blanks of the last moments of these men ritually shot by their own comrades. Made a hundred years later, the poignant images show places forever marked by traumatic events. The photographs of both Dewe Mathews and Coombs remind us that the traces of war are to be found all around us, if only we know how and where to look, and that even the most mundane location can be imbued with significance.

Above: Melanie Friend, Avro Lancaster Bomber (Part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight), Southport Beach, Merseyside, 24 July 2011 from the series The Home Front, 2009-11, C-type print. ©Melanie Friend.

The commemoration of armed conflict is no straightforward matter. A number of the contemporary photographers featured in Photography and War offer critiques of ‘war tourism’, re-enactment activities, and the ‘museification’ of sites such as Second World War concentration camps. The Home Front by Melanie Friend documents air displays that take place over coastal Britain, which often commemorate aerial dogfights and feed nostalgia for ‘war birds’ such as Lancaster bombers (illus. 103). Friend’s project was catalysed in part by the reaction of a traumatized four-year-old Kosovan refugee who mistook a Red Arrows display in Southport for a genuine military air strike.

The Home Front highlights the disconnect between spectacles of memorialisation and the destructive capabilities of aerial warfare, and the fine line between commemoration and entertainment. Photographs may not only help us remember war, but prompt us to question what is at stake in doing so.

– Pippa Oldfield

Pippa Oldfield is a historian and photography curator who has worked on many exhibitions on the theme of photography and war. She is Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, Honorary Research Fellow at Durham University, and Visiting Research Fellow at University of Leeds. Photography and War is available to order from our website.