The Photography of War

Photographs can provide a way for students to begin research and discussions on war-related issues.

By Daniella Garran


The Photography of War

The history of war photography is an interesting one. This genre of photography has always been controversial; how much is too much for civilians to see? Do these photographs serve as proof and evidence or as commentary? Studying the use of photographs taken in times of war is important to helping students understand the role of the media and the role of the photographer in society.  These lessons can be used to enhance the study of any time period or war beginning with the American Civil War. It is important to remember, however, that the proper context of these images must be presented along with the role of the photographer and his or her intended purpose.

Introduce students to the following images which have become iconic over time. You can find examples on the website

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Tiananmen Square 

The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

U.S. Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima 


Bodies of Confederate Dead 

Engineers of the 8th N.Y. State Militia, 1861Exhumed Bodies near Namering, Germany - "A German girl is overcome as she walks past the exhumed bodies of some of the 800 slave workers murdered by SS guards near Namering, Germany, and laid here so that townspeople may view the work of their Nazi leaders." Cpl. Edward Belfer. May 17, 1945. 
Slave Labor in Buchenwald - "These are slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Jena; many had died from malnutrition when U.S. troops of the 80th Division entered the camp." Pvt. H. Miller, Germany, April 16, 1945.

Students studying the use of photographs in times of war should consider whether the camera ever “lies.” The Library of Congress offers two interesting examples from the Civil War. Students can take a look at the photos called "The Case of the Confused Identity" and "The Case of the Moved Body" and discuss the issues raised. For more current war photos, students could view an NPR slideshow and listen to the accompanying podcast to learn about the experiences of Chris Hondros, a Getty Images photographer who completed nine tours in Iraq.

You can also have students peruse newspapers and magazines for a week. Ask them to bring in any images of war that they find. Then establish categories into which most of the images will fit (e.g.: soldiers at rest, civilians, attacks, by location, etc . . .) and organize the images. Have students assemble the groups of images into a photo essay and then ask them to write a statement about the collection of images.

The Photography of War:

War on Film:

In conjunction with the series "art:21," PBS has some excellent lessons available. This one focuses on capturing war on film, beginning in the nineteenth century with the Civil War and focusing on images taken during the Holocaust. Students focus on the difference between photographs as art and photographs as news.

Photojournalism: A Record of War:

Students study the life and work of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Not only do students learn about the photographic process and how it has evolved over time, but they also study how photographs are used as primary sources.

The War in Vietnam - A Story in Photographs:

The National Archives has created a lesson that allows students to study the Vietnam War through photographs. Students analyze, interpret and categorize images as they pour over photos taken during the Vietnam War. The lesson also allows opportunities for research and creative writing.

The Power of Pictures:

Students have the opportunity to discuss how the media reports on war and the role that photographs play in our understanding of conflicts abroad. This lesson gives students the chance to create a photo essay on a topic of their choice. This is an excellent teaching tool for a current events or journalism class.