War Photography : a Testimony for Peace ?

On 16 September 2015, the CIPADH, in partnership with Paris Match and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), organized a debate on the topic of war photography and its role in the promotion of peace.


With Régis Le Sommier, Director of Paris Match, as a mediator, the debate included various personalities, such as Marc Brincourt, Director of the Photography Department at Paris Match, Valérie Gorin, Doctor in Communication and Media Science at the University of Geneva, and Alvaro Canovas, photojournalist for Paris Match.

When the question, ‘Can a photograph change history?’ arises, we need to ask ourselves on one hand, how this image has been thought by the photographer and on the other hand, how it has been received by the audience. The first war photographs started to appear during World War II, the most famous one being ‘The face in the Surf’, by Robert Capa. Unlike photographs at the time that had the aim of propaganda as well as justifying war, this photograph was one of the first to be taken on the spot, without any kind of directing or staging. Its only motivation was to touch the audience and to confront it with the harshness of the conflict. A way to make people react.

It is during the Vietnam War that war photography reched its apogee. Indeed, after their successful experiences during World War II and the Korean War, the United States allowed war photographers to follow the troops everywhere, with no restriction or censorship, which would enable them to largely influence public opinion in the US. It was also a great laboratory of discoveries for photographers on the ground.

At the same time, the Vietnam War also became a breaking point for war photography in general. Even though editors were, in most cases, supporters of the war and were not in favor of photographs that could illustrate a potential loss, journalists on the ground were starting to tell the real story, the one that they were witnessing out there. Many photographs showing civilians as victims of attacks, such as the famous “The Terror of War” by Nick Ut, started to appear. While people were used to seeing pictures of their “boys” in the horror of the war, Nick Ut’s picture was one of the first to confront the audience with the pain and violence that civilians were subjected to in Vietnam. Furthermore, this picture has been said to have contributed to the withdrawal of the US from the Vietnam War.

The United States perfectly understood the potential of war photography. It can change public opinion in an instant. Many lessons from Vietnam were learned, including on granting access to the conflict to war photographers. In fact, journalists were highly criticized and accused of being responsible for losing the conflict. Therefore, during the Gulf War, no photographs were allowed, which was a huge step back for freedom of information.

Finally, to answer the question on whether war photography can contribute to peace, it seems appropriate to say yes. Even though it was first used as propaganda by states, it also was and became an essential tool to change public opinion. This shows that the effects of war photography are, in most cases, double sided. But it is important to keep in mind, as Régis LeSommier said to conclude the debate, that “a conflict that is not covered by photographers is a lot worse than a conflict that is covered.”


To view the video conference, please click here.


Alexandre Binz