Since the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, a number of conflicts had been photographed by the time the world found itself engulfed in the First World War.
Camera technology progressed rapidly over those 70 years, with cameras becoming pocket-sized and affordable, which for the first time produced the concept of the amateur photographer. In addition, the moving image was no longer simply a science experiment and huge portions of the public enjoyed visiting the cinema.
In her fantastic book, First World War Photographers, Jane Carmichael, retired Director of Collections at the Imperial War Museum, categorizes First World War photographers into three groups: “official, press, and amateur.”
This article takes a look at these categories of First World War photographers and their unique contributions to the memory of British and Imperial forces.
Ernest Brooks is a name synonymous with First World War photography as the first official British photographer of the war. Brooks’ pre-war experience as a photographer for the Daily Mirror newspaper saw him plucked out of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve by the Admiralty in preparation for the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.
Having the title of Official Photographer allowed Brooks access to places and people that would have been inaccessible for soldiers of his rank. After transferring to the Western Front in 1916, Brooks was given the honorary rank of Second Lieutenant to provide him with privileges and access.
Although Canadian and Australian photographers were known to be given the rank of Captain, British photographers never got further than Second Lieutenant. Limiting their rank and the subsequent restrictions imposed on the official photographers reflected the armed forces and British government’s mixed feelings about the role of photographers during the war.
This cautious attitude is also reflected by the small number of official photographers deployed by the British and Imperial forces in comparison to other countries. For instance, Carmichael explains that the British and imperial forces had barely ten photographers by the end of 1916, in comparison to France’s 35 and Germany’s 50 official photographers on the Western Front.
Official photographers were often obliged to cover certain aspects of the war. Although images were rarely faked outright, Carmichael suggests there were occasional instances of “scene setting” to achieve results.
In one instance, soldiers are seen fixing bayonets on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, although the scene was actually staged a few days before the battle began. In his memoirs, My Bit, George Ashurst of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers describes how Earnest Brooks asked him and his comrades to act in the scene in return for rum and cigarettes.
Although dependent on who was in command, the British Army encouraged photography on the whole. However, the Royal Navy were far more reluctant, and while they permitted the use of personal cameras, the cost of housing and feeding an official photographer was seen as an unnecessary concern.
Official photographers were occasionally given passes alongside strict instructions about what they could and couldn’t photograph. This meant that only around 2,000 photographs of the Royal Navy were taken during the First World War. Most of these photos depict the daily routines of navy life, and few combat images were recorded.
The use of photographs in newspapers was still a relatively new approach to news telling. The technology to print photos using a system of dots was developed in the 1880s, which drastically reduced the costs of mass printing photographs.
The British press was faced with serious restrictions during the war and struggled to send any of their own photographers to the Western Front. They were instead forced to rely on the official photographers and amateurs–neither of which could be relied on to capture what the press sought.
Newspapers, therefore, had to rely on stock photographs or images that were desperately out of date. This meant that the written word remained the most important facet of news storytelling.
The moral obligation to include photographs that truthfully reflect the story did not exist as it does today. During the war, artistic interpretation of events was still generally accepted. As long as the photograph–or drawing–matched the written story, there was little issue with it not being an exact depiction.
In lulls of photographic content, the press even ran competitions for soldiers that had personal cameras to submit their work for publication. They were often met with hundreds of eager applicants.
Nonetheless, the Mesopotamia theater remained almost entirely unrestricted throughout the war. Although it was a fascinating and exotic side to the conflict, the theater lacked a unified frontline and it was difficult for the photographers to know when or where attacks would take place.
The British press, therefore, struggled to find images of the fighting in the Middle East that would engage British readers. Further, Carmichael argues that British readers were uninterested or less concerned about the conditions faced by British forces in the theater since the majority of the soldiers there were from India.
Amateur photography was generally accepted across the board, and was actively encouraged in some instances. Pocket-sized cameras with rolls of film made it easy for common soldiers to snap away.
First World War amateur photography often differs vastly from the other forms of photography during the war. Although their composition and technique are sometimes left to be desired, the amateur photographers faced few of the restrictions that the official or press photographers did.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the Christmas truce of 1914. Despite common belief, the truces were few and far between on the Western Front. The vast majority of soldiers on the frontline remained in their trenches and on guard against the enemy.
What’s more, the truces were anything but planned, so official photographers were left unaware of any potential truce. It was therefore left to soldiers carrying pocket-sized cameras to capture the event.
Carmichael references a letter written by J. Selby Grigg, which described meeting German troops from Saxony who appeared to have no hatred for England and looked forward to the end of the war.
As the war came to an end, the newly established Imperial War Museum in London sent out calls for amateur photographs taken during the war. The response was enormous, and the museum now holds a detailed catalog of photos that cover all sides of the war in the most intimate detail.