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18 images that helped define modern conflict

War is chaotic, disparate and convoluted, but historical memory of such violence is, more often than not, constructed from the opposite of this chaos.  War is, to many, has over the years often been represented through still images – fragments of action frozen in time by the camera.

For as long as the technology has been available, photography has played a role in conflict: documenting atrocity, perpetuating propaganda, and even itself as an instrument of violence. From Roger Fenton’s 1855 photographs of deserted, sepia battlefields, to the relentless headline-mill of contemporary media, images sculpt how conflicts are received, remembered and fought. Prior to the conception of war photography, civilians relied on artists’ impressions and state rhetoric to visualize conflict. Since the twentieth century, most conflict photography has been generated by journalists shooting from a compulsion to make the world see, believe and respond where suffering and cruelty exist. As the war photographer James Nachtwey described his career, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”

Painful to look at and often shrouded in controversy, conflict photography forces us to confront the consequences of violence and the price of peace. War photographers bring to light the unseeable; their photographs not only testify to the horrors endured on the front lines, but interrogate the purpose of conflict itself.  Often, they hold perpetrators to account.

Of the millions of photographs depicting violence, a handful have become iconic – emblazoned in the annals of history. The following list brings together some of the most influential photographs to have shaped our conception of conflict since the inception of the medium. Often photographs from the frontlines capture moments of physical confrontation, but, on other occasions, it is depictions of the scars of aftermath that are more revealing, and devastating. These images testify to how conflict has impacted the lives of soldiers and civilians, throughout history, and across the world

1. Roger Fenton, 1855

The man remembered by history as the earliest war photographer was, first and foremost, a landscapist. Roger Fenton began his career studying law and painting, before turning his eye to photography. His most notable works were generated during the Crimean War; he made around three hundred and sixty wet-collodion photographs documenting the conflict, though none depicting active combat. Whether due to the laborious techniques of the period, or the British government’s imperative to shield the public from the violent reality of the war, Fenton avoided graphic or traumatic subject matter.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death is one of two exposures Fenton took from the same vantage point, on the same day, of a pass with a fearful reputation amongst the soldiers as a site of relentless bombardment. The empty, dirt road is strewn with discarded cannonballs, which seem to stand-in for the absent human combatants. However, upon comparing the two photographs, it becomes apparent that the second scene is different: the debris is arranged across the landscape much more expansively. Commentators have debated whether or not Fenton himself manipulated the composition, stirring questions of ethics and censorship that recur throughout the history of conflict photography.

2. John Warwick Brooke, 1917

The second official military photographer to arrive on the Western Front, John Warwick Brooke documented trench warfare shoulder-to-shoulder with British serving soldiers. As one of just a few photographers amongst an army of millions, Brooke worked furiously to achieve breadth of coverage, and made over four thousand photographs of the war effort.

This image depicts an officer of the Scottish Rifles leading a party through the trenches, while shells explode in the distance. The men’s faces are concealed, but their anxiety is palpable as they await their turn to scramble over the top. Despite Warwick Brook, and other military photographer’s proximity to the combat during the First World War, the technology of the period struggled to capture the abominable chaos, devastation and violence wrought by the ‘Great War’, on a scale previously unknown to humanity.

3. Robert Capa, 1936

In 1938 Picture Post declared twenty-five year old Robert Capa ‘the greatest war photographer in the world’, following his coverage of the Spanish Civil War. His photograph of ‘The Falling Soldier’ exemplifies the camera’s singular ability to slice a moment out of a stream of action. Here, Capa has eternalised the impact of the bullet upon the body of a militiaman, resulting in an image that is confrontational and arresting. The viewer perceives the soldier’s agonized grimace and outstretched arm as an evocative symbol of war’s deadly consequences.

Capa’s career is synonymous with the burgeoning predominance of photojournalism, especially the exploits of solo reporters- a model Capa would pioneer with his colleagues at Magnum. As cameras became smaller, lighter and faster, independent photographers were able to immerse themselves completely in the field, and record events more intimately. As with ‘The Falling Soldier’, Capa’s practice was characterized by a determination to shoot as close to the action as possible, which ultimately led to his death in 1954, after he stepped on a landmine in Thai-Binh, Indochina.

4. Eugene Smith, 1945

Smith photographed US troops in the Pacific theatre between 1942 and 1945, as a correspondent for LIFE magazine. Living directly alongside his subjects offered rich scope for him to record the successive trials and traumas that punctuated the soldiers’ war. Many of his photographs from the frontlines have since risen to infamy, so too has Smith’s reputation for harboring a relentless commitment to his subjects. Reportedly, the soldiers he followed in the Pacific referred to him as ‘wonderful’ Smith, in credit to his bravery and appetite for action.

Smith’s photographs from the Second World War are as stunning as they are terrible in their depictions of incredible humanity betwixt violence. This photograph illustrates the detonation of a cave by a US Marine demolition team, and testifies to the rapid industrialisation of conflict during the twentieth century. The huddled soldiers in the photograph are dwarfed by the smoke and debris cloud of the explosion, as war was increasingly dominated by machines and technology.

5. Lee Miller and David Scherman, 1945

Muse, Surrealist and war correspondent, the American-born Lee Miller was one of a handful of female photographers who embedded with the allied troops during the Second World War. She reported for Vogue, while her partner, David Scherman represented Life magazine. The pair documented some of the most significant moments of the war, including the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. Miller anticipated the difficulty of making the readership believe that such grave atrocities had been committed, and thus, deployed her camera as a provocative witness. ‘Believe It’ ran the headlines on the issues of British and American Vogue in which Miller’s concentration camp photographs were published.

However, the most enduring photograph associated with Miller was taken by Scherman. Having just witnessed the liberation of Dachu, Miller and Scherman found themselves in Hitler’s personal apartments, where the photograph of Miller in the bathtub was made. With the dirt of Dachu trodden into the matt, and the dictator’s portrait perched precariously on the rim, the image- shot by a Jewish man on the same day as Hitler’s suicide- epitmoses the Nazi’s downfall.

6. Charles Levy, 1945

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A photograph that captures the end of the Second World War in very different terms was shot seventeen thousand feet above the Pacific, by Charles Levy. It depicts an eight mile-high mushroom plume billowing up in space, beneath which, the town of Nagasaki, along with forty thousand of its inhabitants, had just been raised to the ground.

Levy described the atomic flash as ‘sharp and brighter than double daylight itself inside our plane’, while another journalist present, William Laurence, referred to it as ‘seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam’. There are no words that could truly articulate the chain of devastation catalysed by the bombing of Nagasaki, but Levy’s photograph does capture the beginning of the post-nuclear epoch in conflict.

7. Don McCullin, 1968

‘This picture is a kind of silent protest in a way, to express a kind of silent protest about the futility of war. You can see this man’s life has possibly been damaged forever, on the other hand he is in the military he knew there would be some eventual situation that would bring great fear and harm to him possibly.’

That is how Don McCullin reflects on making the infamous portrait of the shell-shocked Marine during the Battle of Hue- remembered for some of the war’s grimmest fighting. McCullin was then photographing for The Sunday Times, and continues to be internationally regarded for his ability to document the human cost of war- the physical and psychological battery inflicted by the frontlines.

Vietnam is often referred to as the first televised conflict: with the rise of broadcast news, civilians were met with the facts of a war, occurring thousands of miles away, in something close to real-time. Many were appalled. McCullin’s unflinching documentary remains one of the most evocative and powerful testimonies of war, which at the time, informed the rising tide of public hostility regarding the US’ presence in Vietnam.

8. Nick Ut, 1972

Perhaps no photograph inflamed public outrage against the war in Vietnam more than Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’: a photograph of nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc among children fleeing from a napalm bomb, mistakely dropped into their village by South Vietnamese forces. The image of the children’s burning skin and wailing mouths was almost dismissed by the Associated Press, due to strict nudity rules. However, the editors ultimately decided that the photograph was too significant to remain unseen.

Immediately after taking the photograph, Ut rushed Kim to hospital in his own car, where she narrowly survived the third-degree burns to her body. Controversy regarding the publication of such exposing and traumatic photojournalism, as exemplified by ‘Napalm Girl’, persists today. However, Kim herself has spoken in positive terms regarding Ut’s conduct towards her, and the anti-war momentum precipitated by the multi-award winning photograph he took of her. Within a year of the incident, US forces withdrew from the twenty-year conflict, accelerated by the damming public response to the suffering evidenced in photographs.

9. Susan Mieselas, 1979

Susan Mieselas has spent years covering the political strife and reconciliation efforts in Nicaragua. Her first major stint in the country was during the late 1970s, at the time of the insurrection and successful Sandiastan revolution, but Mieselas made multiple return visits, photographing with a rigor indicative of her ‘concerned documentary’ style. Mieselas proximity and commitment to the plight of Nicuraguans is revealed in the intimacy and intensity of her photographs; she lived alongside the insurgents, nurturing relationships and trust. ‘History was being made on the streets and no-one knew where it would lead. People believed what they were doing mattered. I felt the necessity to witness and document what they did,’ she reflects.

This photograph of the young Sandinista poised with a homemade explosive exemplifies the intensity of revolutionary zeal that undergirds Meiselas Nicaragua series. However, considering the depth of her coverage, it is difficult to isolate one image that typifies the complexity of the situation. Conflicts can rarely be understood in binary terms, and Mieselas conveys this in her extensive body of photographs depicting not only the volatility of war, but also the instability of peace.

10. Ken Jarecke, 1991

Retrospectively, Ken Jarecke’s haunting photograph of an incinerated Iraqi soldier in a burnt-out truck is one of the defining images of the Gulf War, however, at the time, it was virtually unseen within the US. It was regarded as too disturbing to print. Jarecke defended his decision to take the photograph, stating ‘if I don’t photograph this, people like my mom will think war is what they see on TV’.

In order to prevent a repeat of the public relations disaster in Vietnam, during the Gulf Wars, the US military deployed a pool system that allowed them to maintain a tight grip on the flow of reportage. This saw media networks pushing footage of glistening new war machines, and abstract aerial combat. Meanwhile, as implied by Jarecke, evidence of human suffering and loss of life was being occluded- out of sight and out of mind in the West.

Jarecke’s photograph of grievous suffering, then published by The Observer in the UK and Libération in France, shattered any such illusion, serving as a poignant reminder that war always has a human toll.

11. James Nachtwey, 1994

James Nachtwey’s photograph of a scarred Hutu man is a portrait of trauma. The photographer recalls how the man, having just been released from a concentration camp where he’d witnessed torture and murder, had been mute with grief, and consented to the photograph with a gesture.

‘He implicitly agreed and at one point even turned his face towards the light. That’s when I made that picture. I think he understood what his scars would say to the rest of the world. I think he, at that point, designated me to be his messenger.’ Nachtwey is endorsing the notion that, at the point at which language is unable to express intolerable suffering, photography might prevail. The particular horrors witnessed by the man in the image remain a mystery, but his scars testify to the extremity of ethnic violence that wracked Rwanda, and the challenges of reconciliation and healing for individuals, and wider society.

12. Richard Drew, 2001

Two decades after the fact, the silhouette of the man falling from the burning World Trade Centre is bound-up not only with the 9/11 attacks, but also, George Bush’s subsequent ‘War on Terror’. Following two US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and countless civilian and military lives lost, the fear of terrorism in the West continues to loom large.

Drew’s photograph was used by a number of newspapers on the day following the attacks, but not without admonition that it was too upsetting and invasive for print. Nevertheless, the image continues to resonate with many who witnessed the attacks in the first instance, or have experienced the post-9/11 culture of fear and hypervigilance regarding terrorism. Societies around the globe were ever-altered by the events of September 11th 2001, and Richard Drew’s photograph of the falling man has become the visual epitome of that seismic transformation.

13. Carolyn Cole, 2004

Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole was granted the Pultizer Prize for her coverage of Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war. In particular, she was commended for empathetically documenting the plight of civilians swept up in the violence of a callous war, characterised by the recruitment of child soldiers, widespread femicide and rape, as well as mass displacement.

Cole’s relentless reportage from this crucible of violence ensured that the Liberian people’s suffering did not go unseen, challenging the outside world to at least witness their plight, and acknowledge the repercussions of political instability in the region. This photograph, taken by Cole, depicts a young rebel fighter frozen in a moment of anguish during the siege of Monrovia- his expression indicative of the turmoil and horror of the bloody civil war.

14. Joseph Darby, 2004

The scandal produced in the wake of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, which document the brutal and sadistic torture of inmates carried out by the US army and CIA against detainees, confirms the power of visual evidence to catalyze redress and reform. The thousands of photographs, taken by the offending personnel themselves, depict a culture of systematic violence and humiliation so sinister that, for many, it would have been impossible to believe, had they not seen.

The Bush administration initially tried to dispel Abu Ghraib as an anomalous incident perpetrated by a few individuals, however, the photographs lent credence to Amnesty International’s report on the ‘pattern of brutality and cruelty’ at US detention facilities. Their findings stated, ‘the US has shown a consistent disregard for the Geneva Conventions and basic principles of law, human rights and decency. This has created a climate in which US soldiers feel they can dehumanize and degrade prisoners with impunity.’

Ultimately, eleven soldiers were convicted for the abuses at Abu Ghraib- the longest sentence of ten years being handed to Charles Graner. However, the shock and horror induced by the photographs penetrated the US’ veneer of moral infallibility, and continue to reverberate at the heart of democracy.

15. Tim Hetherington, 2008

Tim Hetherington’s ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ series is touched by tenderness and domesticity rarely seen from the frontline. Accompanied by fellow journalist Sebastian Junger, Hetherington embedded with the US Airborne Infantry platoon in the The Korengal Valley- considered one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan, for two years. ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ is just one of the pair’s numerous outputs from their time in the Valley, in which Hetherington pares away any traces of combat, to reveal the bare humanity of the serving men.

“It’s all about the men,” said Hetherington, “It was a conscious decision. [It] comments on the experience of the soldier. It’s brotherhood. The flow of pictures is to introduce you to the Korengal Valley first and then to see the men in an intimate way… To get to know them and how they lived. Then you see them in combat in the traditional combat style. Finally, you see them as young men, sleeping.”

16. Pete Souza, 2011

The significance of this photograph, taken by White House Photographer Pete Souza, resides outside the frame, playing-out on the screen upon which every gaze in the room is fixed: the assassination of Osama bin Laden, by SEAL Team Six. Beneath the surface of the image, the tension between the core pillars of Barack Obama’s inner circle is palpable. The President is seen in the same clothes he’d worn to play golf that morning- a decision he made to maintain the veneer of an ordinary day in the White House. The Vice President, Joe Biden fingered his rosary beads as events unfolded on-screen.

Souza’s photograph captures the granular, stealth character of much modern warfare. The rapid development of surveillance and intelligence technologies: drones, targeted missiles and aerial mapping, have opened the possibility of a geographical gulf between decision makers and the frontlines of conflict. Furthermore, nearly decade after 9/11, the death of Osama Bin Laden marked the end of a significant chapter in America’s ‘War on Terror’

17. Nilüfer Demir, 2015

According to UN figures, more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since the conflict escalated in 2011, and this photograph of three year old Alan Kurdi’s body face-down on the Turkish shore pulled this humanitarian crisis into sharp focus for many outside the region. Often, the plight of refugees is reduced to anonymous and incomprehensible data; Kurdi’s story reinstated the real human toll. Turkish photojournalist, Nilüfer Demir, took the initial photographs of Kurdi’s body; later it was revealed that he was one of twelve people who had drowned attempting to reach Kos in a smugglers’ boat that night. 

The international response to the viral photograph was intense. It trended on Twitter alongside the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore), exemplifying the power of a photograph, with an emotive story attached, to galvanize public feeling. Numerous world leaders passed statements and condolences, as in the wake of Demir’s photograph, it has become increasingly intolerable for European nations to defend an apathetic position on the plight of refugees fleeing to the region.

18. Lynsey Addario, 2022

Debates regarding what a war correspondent should reveal, and conceal, in their work continue to circulate around even the most contemporary conflicts. This photograph, taken by New York Times’ Lynsey Addario during Russia’s assault on Kyiv, has become one of the most poignant of the Ukraine conflict so far. The shot is of a road, on which a Ukrainian mother and her two children lie dead, in the wake of a mortar explosion.

“I thought, even if we don’t use it, this is a war crime. I watched a civilian die. I have to take these photos,” the photographer said. Addario’s image featured prominently in the Times’ coverage, and numerous other outlets also carried the story. Following referrals from dozens of countries, an investigation into potential war and crimes against humanity in Ukraine has been initiated by the International Criminal Court. In a theater of war in which the truth is increasingly part of what is being fought for, photographs, such as Addario’s, which document the true human cost and are more important than ever.