Photos from the Ukraine have helped us understand better the unfolding crisis across the Ukraine and especially in the Crimea.
Today these images are transmitted to us nearly instantly—and join in the flow of hundreds or thousands of photographic images we see everyday, transmitted to us by print and online media.
During the Crimean War in the mid-1850s, however, photography was a brand-new technology, seen but rarely. The Crimean War was the first war to be documented by photography, most famously by Englishman Roger Fenton, who was commissioned by the British government to document the war the British and their French allies were waging against the Russia.
Fenton’s photos portray the great suffering of war—and do so powerfully in spite of the limitations of the new photographic technology and Victorian sensibilities about what were proper subjects for photography. Fenton’s photographs accommodated those sensibilities (and, one supposes, the interests of the British government that wished to shore up support for the war effort) by not photographing the war’s dead and wounded.
Fenton’s most famous photo is the haunting “Valley of the Shadow of Death”—an empty valley landscape dense with cannonballs. The absence of life in a place awash with death-delivering armaments conveys the terribleness of the conflict, and all without portraying the dead immediately.
Of course, the sensibilities that kept Fenton from photographing the dead and wounded did not last. Less than a decade later, Mathew Brady was displaying graphic photos of the war dead at Antietam, and little over a century later Eddie Adams’s close-up photo of a prisoner’s execution won a Pulitzer and became the iconic image of the Vietnam War. As the public became inured to images of suffering, war photos moved from Fenton’s oblique portrayal of suffering to Adam’s capture of the exact moment of death.
The evolution of sensibilities in war photography are of interest to those trying to engage philanthropists on behalf cause. Engaging philanthropists’ interests often requires “putting a human face on suffering.”
Today, that often requires a photo, perhaps even a graphic or controversial one—but which may expose the suffering but also violate the privacy of and degrade the sufferer. As nonprofit expert John J. Burnett was quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy as observing:
Shock advertising has been around for long time, and it just seems like a natural evolution that nonprofits would get to it. . . . Showing starving babies used to be about as shocking as you can get, and traditionally you never showed anyone in pain. But now that’s just vanilla. . . . [However,] the risks are greater than the level of awareness they are going to create. You could end up trivializing the cause or diminishing the actual problem.
Images of suffering—of maimed or malformed children, of starving people in war-torn areas, of victims of natural disasters—are sometimes used in charitable appeals. And, the charity that such images prompts may be understood to have come at some cost to the dignity of those who are photographed.
As the sinister images from the Crimea remind us this week, images help us better to understand conflicts and suffering. But Fenton’s photos also remind us that photos can be subtle and show suffering without degrading any single, particular victim. They invite us to consider how we might use images and photos to garner philanthropic support while carefully guarding the dignity of those in need.