As photography evolved, one theme remained fairly constant in the public’s opinion: seeing is believing. People generally regarded photographic prints as evidence of truth and reality. Steadily becoming more mobile, photographers tended to photograph scenes of current events wide, because as much visual information as could be jammed into a photo, the better the photo was considered. A tight crop didn’t give the viewer nearly as much information to digest as a wide shot. It was believed there was more truth and accuracy in wider shots than close ups.
However, despite advances in technology, many photos still took multiple seconds to expose. This limited how much a photographer could successfully capture of live events, particularly ones involving lots of moving people such as war photography.
Up until the mid-1800’s war was something romanticized and fantasized about. Unless you had been to war, you didn’t know what it looked like. Cameras offered a glimpse into what it was like and given the public’s opinion that photos = truth, many officials in power began to realize they had a great PR tool at their disposal. If they financed a photographer’s work, they could pay him to bring back images that support the views they’re trying to perpetuate. In short, photos were (and still are) a stellar part of propaganda machines.
During the Crimean War (1853-56), several reporters wrote to England of the horrifying conditions their troops were seeing. The public was naturally upset and the government’s efforts to gain the public’s support for the war were waning, fast. In 1855, Roger Fenton was hired by Thomas Agnew to go to the war and bring back photos that he could sell to the upper-class history buffs. To fund Fenton, Agnew had the assistance of England’s Secretary of State for War who provided funds but also had an interested in bumping up the public approval rating for the war. Knowing these factors, Fenton’s photos are so obviously influenced propaganda you almost have to laugh. Fenton avoided the controversial topics of war almost entirely. There are no photos that show the chaos of war, no death, no suffering, no ill equipped medical facilities, and nothing of any of the other atrocities that were told to the news outlets by the reporters present.
Fenton focused on photos of generals and ranking officials in their finest dress uniforms instead of your average soldier in tattered and dirty wares. He showed officers in their lavish quarters with their staff and attendants. When he did show any kind of suffering, he did show one man with a head bandage. The bandage was perfectly wrapped and he was being attended to in a well-appointed hospital room by a nurse in a pristine uniform. It gave the impression to the public that even if you did get hurt in war, it wasn’t that bad. You would still be taken care of properly.
Fenton eventually returned to England where he was once again supported by the Crown to print and publish the photos that he took, all of which show the British military positively. To further propagandize the war, Fenton publicly questioned that the paintings the public considered as having a “total want of likeness to reality.” He reinforced, yet again, the photograph as being the equal of truth.
Today, we’re all quite a bit more savvy about what can be done with or to a photograph to influence opinion. We are still all subject to photographs being manipulated or taken specifically to promote an agenda. Whether the photographs are for good (we all want to promote our weddings and portraits to show happy, vibrant families and people even when they might not be so perfect!) Or when they show the not-so-good as in tabloids publishing photos of celebrities in the most obviously awkward angles to comment on their weight. Or showing the one frame of a political figure doing something that makes him/her appear in a negative light that could sway public opinion. We all need to consider the possible influences behind a photograph when it is in the public light. It’s a strategy that always has been and seemingly always will be a part of photography.