At Large  August 31, 2022  Caterina Bellinetti

The Lasting Impact of WWII Photography

US Army and US Defence Visual Information Center.

Photograph by Private H. Miller. (Army) of slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Taken five days after liberation, on April 16, 1945.
 

The end of WWI left the world in a tense political situation that soon generated new ambitions and rivalries. In Europe, the feelings of humiliation, together with political and economic instability, propelled some countries, such as Italy and Germany, to political extremism. The result was the suppression of political opposition, the creation of strong propaganda machines, and the start of aggressive policies on territorial expansion. The war broke out in early September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland and a consequent war declaration by France and Britain on the Nazi regime.

Records of the U.S. Coast Guard. National Archives and Records Administration. 

Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire, June 6, 1944.

 

 

In terms of photographic production, WWII saw the most extensive use of professional, military, and freelance photographers. Indeed, the concept of war photographer as we intend it today was born during this conflict. Names such as Robert Capa, George Silk, Margaret Bourke-White, and William Eugene Smith, became popular in the pages of magazines and newspapers and set a standard for those to come. Technology had also evolved since the 1920s. Photographers could now rely on small cameras such as the Rolleiflex, the Contax rangefinder, and the Leica. Free from cumbersome equipment and long exposure times, reporters could finally photograph active combat. For instance, the blurred images taken by Robert Capa on D-Day were made with a Contax II and catapulted the world into the freezing waters of Normandy and the chaos of warfare.

Yet, not all iconic WWII photographs were of ongoing clashes. Two of the most famous photographs immortalized the end of fighting and the stillness of victory: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal and Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag by Yevgeny Khaldei.

In February 1945, the US army captured the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. To signify the takeover, a group of marines, followed by the photographer Sgt. Louis Lowery, climbed Mount Suribachi to raise the American flag. Due to the heavy Japanese firing, Lowery had to take cover, but slipped and broke his camera. Luckily, another photographer, Joe Rosenthal, was just behind hoping to take a few shots from the summit. Through a combination of luck and photographic instinct, Rosenthal took the photograph that eventually became an embodiment of the bravery of the US troops.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.
wikimedia commons.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.

 

Yevgeny Khaldei, Raising a flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945.
wikimedia commons.

Yevgeny Khaldei, Raising a flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945.

An even more rocambolesque story characterizes the making of Raising a Flag over the Reichstag. On April 30, 1945, a Red Army soldier climbed the Reichstag building in Berlin and hoisted the red flag. But no one was there to immortalize that moment. It was only a day later that Yevgeny Khaldei, a Soviet photographer of the TASS agency, arrived in Berlin determined to recreate the moment he had missed. Unable to find a flag, Khaldei flew back to Moscow and stitched together three red tablecloths with a cardboard-made sickle and hammer. Back in Berlin again, Khaldei convinced three soldiers to help him recreate the hosting of the flag. The photograph is now the symbol of the liberation of Berlin from the Nazis.

Like never before, the photographs taken during this conflict showed the damage inflicted, not only on soldiers, but also on civilians and their lives: Frozen, burnt, and mauled corpses, entire cities razed to the ground, the effects of the atomic bomb, the glazed eyes of those who returned from the front. One of the most horrific events in the history of mankind was recorded, among others, by Margaret Bourke-White. She arrived in Buchenwald, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps, shortly after it was liberated by US troops in the spring of 1945. Her photographs appeared on Life in May with the caption “Dead men will have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”

Wikimedia Commons.

Czesława Kwoka, child victim of Auschwitz, as shown in her prisoner identification photo. Photograph attributed to Wilhelm Brasse, taken in 1942 or 1943, exhibited at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

All images of war are hard to face, some more than others. Many have wondered about the ethical issues of recording violence, but Bourke-White provided an answer that still rings true today: “Difficult as these things may be to report or to photograph, it is something we war correspondents must do. We are in a privileged and sometimes unhappy position. We see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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