Photography and its Role in Conflict and Peace – (completed essay)

“The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective” Susan Sontag 1




Sebastiao Salgado

Sebastio Salgado

Sebastiao Salgado published his book, Migrations – Humanity in Transition2 in the year 2000. This was the culmination of 6 years of work, following different groups of people in 40 countries around the world. Some were migrating for economic reasons, others due to natural disasters, and there were also people displaced because of war and genocide.

He has been described as a photojournalist, a documentary photographer and an activist, but this is not how he sees himself. Sebastiao did not visit an area in the style of a journalist covering a war, spending a limited period of time as an “embedded” photographer, returning home and then back to the next national crisis. Instead he moved into a community and lived amongst its inhabitants, developed relationships with people and viewed their plight in accordance with the openness that they would share with him.

This does not mean that he documented what he saw with neutrality, he acknowledges that he has his own ideology that inspired his work as a photographer and influenced the images that he present in his books.

“But, hear me, much of these guys’ work (Glauber Rocha and his comrades), like my photography, was not made because these people were activists, it was made because it was their way of life—you live like this, your ideology is this, and your language is photography or cinema, and your life comes from that.” Sebastiao Salgado 3

Amongst his aims he wanted to change how people viewed war, tragedy, migration and immigration. He has used his role as a photographer to support the work of Medicines San Frontiers, to raise funds for them, and also as an ambassador for the United Nations.

Rwanda 1994

Tutsi corpses in an abandoned school, Nyarubuye, Rwanda, 1995 (Sebastião Salgado)

Tutsi corpses in an abandoned school, Nyarubuye, Rwanda, 1995 (Sebastião Salgado)

Salgado was in Rwanda during 1994, during the genocide in which 800,000 people died. Most of these were Tutsi, murdered by the Hutu. He remained there during the turmoil following the genocide, the displacement, immigration to surrounding countries as refugees, the famine and the disease. The question gets raised as to whether a photographer, making photos of human tragedy is a witness, a chronicler or a participant. This is a pertinent point to consider if you are embarking upon a career in documentary photography, and an opportunity to reflect upon motive.

As well as considering motive, and without discounting the suffering of those whose lives are being recorded, risk to the photographer also has to be taken into account. Salgado became very ill after returning from Rwanda, and his illness can be attributed to witnessing such intense trauma.

“…Migrations…during the time I was photographing this, I lived through a very hard moment in my life, mostly in Rwanda I saw in Rwanda total brutality. I saw deaths by thousands per day. I lost faith in our species. I didn’t believe it was possible for us to live any longer,” 4

Other photographers have lost their lives during the course of their work. During an interview with Joerg Colberg, Benjamin Lowy discusses the impact that the deaths of Chris Hondos and Tim Hetherington had upon him. Hetherington, a British photojournalist, and Hondos and American war photographer were killed by Libyan forces in Misrata whilst covering the 2011 civil war. 5

Benjamin continued to work and he became an “embedded” photographer with the American armed forces, shooting images through the window of a Humvee that was patrolling through Iraq.

Iraq | Perspectives

Iraq Perspectives

Benjamin Lowy 6

He was aware that he had to retain his own personal safety and that it would not have been safe for him to photograph in a manner other than that of an embed.

“Journalistic independence, as an abstract idea, is worthless if the journalist is dead or kidnapped. There are way too many examples of people trying to tell the story in ridiculously extreme situations and paying the price with their freedom.” 5

Lowy felt that using the frame of the window he was shooting through became part of the picture that emphasized the disconnection between himself, the Iraqi civilians and the American soldiers. During his discussion with Colberg he spoke about the political and socio/economic discord between New York and Iraq, and how hard it is to promote empathy and discourse when there is such a strong disconnection.

We must also consider how the ideologies of a nation and culture are reinforced by the media, sometimes consciously, but not always. Is it possible for the media and the public to consider an alternate view if it is entrenched part of the psyche? Katy Parry discusses how the media is selective in its use of images, and captions that go with them. The photographs that are sent to media outlets are evaluated, and may then be cropped. When a photographer takes an image they are selective in what they ignore and what they shoot, so photography is subjective and neither a factual nor objective account of what is happening around the frame. This decisive moment is then reduced and bastardised by the press, so the image that is put out to the public is even more incongruous than the photographers.

“The highly selective use of press photographs, along with their brief captions, may present a strong, forceful idea about a distant conflict. By omitting other possibilities, there is a danger of one-sided representation.” And “Are there visual elements that evoke cultural ideas or values related to the frame?” 7

There are many considerations that may decrease or increase the benefits of photography in conflict. Photography may not be the instigator of peace, but it can bring public awareness to disconnected world situations, that then leads to donations for relief and aid to reach those who most need them. 8

Making photographs can also be the best medium to bring around such intense public disgust that political change is inevitable, whether these images were made with that intent or not.

Abu Ghraib

Selfie by American military personnel, depicting inhumane cruelty to an Iraqi prisoner

Abu Graibh

Image reported by which they obtained from ABC News

The series of images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners damaged the reputation of the Bush administration inside and outside of America. It has had and still has an impact upon the American political system, and to a degree how and when America decides to intervene in conflicts in distant countries.

Sontag’s reportage on the Abu Ghraib images explores why the Bush administration were outraged by the images being made public and yet not by the horror of the actions and makers of the images. She leaves us with a powerful question in relation to the objectivity that’s crucial for the documentary photographer:-

“To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these images must seem, to those who saw some justification in a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times, ‘unfair.’ A war, an occupation, is inevitably a huge tapestry of actions. What makes some actions representative and others not?” 9



1 Susan Sontag; 2008; On Photography; London Penguin Modern Classics

2 Sebastiao Salgado; 2000; Migrations – Humanity in transition; Aperture




6 Benjamin Lowy; 2011; Iraq | Perspectives; Duke University Press; also

7 Katy Parry; 2010; A visual framing analysis of British press photography during the 2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict; In – Media, War and Conflict, Sage Pub; p69, 79 and

8 Allan Thompson; 2011; The Media and the Rwanda Genocide; Pluto Press

9 Susan Sontag; 2004; Regarding the torture of others; In – New York Times; 23rd May 2004 see