War photography is an incredibly nuanced form of witnessing, both for the viewer of the picture and for the photographer. Like many art forms, photography is an attempt to translate an experience from the photographer to the viewer. The game of perspective telephone between photographer and viewer is one that has limitless interferences. On the viewer’s side of witnessing, we commonly view photography as an objective information source. However, photography is almost always presented by an online article, a museum gallery, or a friend or family member. Thus, there is always a certain amount of context surrounding the presentation of the photo. In that sense, the photograph is almost like evidence that is presented in a testimony, with the presenter of the photo as the witness on trial. As the viewer witnesses the photo or “listens” to the testimony of the article, they are like the jury, deciphering the truthfulness of the photograph and the accuracy of the evidential analysis.
There is only one person who witnesses information communicated in the photograph without any sort of biased interference, and that is the photographer themself. However, even the photographer is set up to create a side of the story. As war photography has grown increasingly prevalent in news media, photographers are specifically commissioned to travel to specific locations and take pictures of specific scenes.
However, the lack of objectivity in photography is not necessarily all bad. In All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque describes the realities of war and the painful transition back to civilian life. He explains how parts of his story are made up or exaggerated, but it is for the purpose of communicating the feeling of the battlefield more intensely. Thus, even though his recounting is not entirely “truthful”, the end product—the emotion felt by the reader—is closer and more accurate to the emotions felt by soldiers on the battlefield. Translating an experience to another person means that the “experience” you give to the listener is almost never even close in terms of emotional and sensory magnitude as the actual experience itself. Thus, this raises the question: does the exaggeration and manipulation of the retelling of the story truly impact how we should think about the trustworthiness of the evidence? In the end, both photography and literature are art forms that are incredibly tied to the artists themselves. Thus, while photography is usually seen as an “objective” art form, perhaps it is not necessarily a bad thing if it is not. Photographers are not only communicating an image, they are trying to communicate an experience.
A very popular case where a photographer is questioned for their manipulation of the scenes is Roger Fenton and his modifications. For example, it is widely known that in “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” Fenton moved more cannonballs into the road. Even though Fenton had to change the scene that could be captured within the width of his camera, it is not as if Fenton brought unused cannonballs from home to place strategically. Those cannonballs were at the scene. Soldiers faced them, and those same cannon balls contributed to the death and destruction that Fenton is trying to communicate. Hence, the photograph does not lose any authenticity despite the staging.
In the end, this is all to clarify the role of the photographer. The photographer is not meant to simply be a carrier of images or a telephone. They are meant to be independent artists with something to say. If we send them out to experience something that we ourselves could never experience, they have the freedom to express how the scene felt to them however they best believe it would be expressed. In other words, because they are the sole witnesses (who have a platform to communicate with us, which is a part of being a witness) of the atrocities of the scenes they are photographing, they have a responsibility to communicate the scene to us as they experienced it, not necessarily how they saw it. There are scenarios where the two may coincide, but also times where they may not.