Combat Camera: Photography in War Zones

Why do I do this job?’ And the answer is: I want to show the best and worst face of humankind” – Alvaro Ybarra Zavala

Alvaro Ybarra Zavala asked and answered the above question in the Congo in November 2008. He had just photographed a man proudly holding a severed hand. Whilst he hated the image for its representation of the “worst face of humankind”, he recognized the importance of his work for showing future generations “what human beings are capable off”.

War photographers, perhaps more than members of any other profession, have to be convinced of the essentiality of their work. They willingly place themselves in some of the world’s most explosive and dangerous situations, in order to document the truth for the all-to-comfortably middle class western world. Death is a very real possibility and some of the traumas suffered by war photographers include molestation, attack by a Haitian mob, kidnap by Gadaffi’s troops and being shot in Afghanistan.

We consider what it takes to be a member of the profession, and, most importantly, why on earth anyone would want to be.


So why is war photography important? This is basically the same question as why any form of front line journalism is necessary – because no matter how uncomfortable and unpleasant, the public needs to know what’s really happening, who is suffering, who is responsible and if intervention is being carried out for the right reasons and in the right way.

Without front line journalism many atrocities would go unreported. The world would have no idea what was going on inside war torn countries, dictators would not feel the restrictions of having the eyes of the world upon them and politicians would be under much less pressure to do anything about it.

Photography is without a doubt the most emotive and powerful way to portray a conflict. What people can see with their own eyes cannot so easily be ignored or denied. War photographer João Silva, who lost his legs in Afghanistan, explains the job as, “I’m intruding on the most intimate moments, but I force myself to do it because the world has to see those images. Politicians need to know what it looks like when you send young boys to war.”


War photo-journalism is by no means popular with everyone – particularly if it’s your wrongdoings that are being revealed. Photographers have found themselves far more limited since the Vietnam War, when the US decided that the media had lost the conflict for them.

In 1982 the British government decided not to make the same mistakes as in the Falkland’s War. Instead of giving journalists open access to the conflict, they set up a ‘pool system’ of small numbers of the press to send information back to Britain –the movements of these pool members were strictly controlled by army personnel. The fact is that the photographs taken– if journalists are given a free reign– are often embarrassing for leaders, poking holes in their propaganda, and that’s something they unsurprisingly wish to avoid.

Instead, leaders prefer to glamorize wars in order to ‘sell’ them to the public. This often involves focusing on famous persons on the front line such as Prince Harry, and feeding back clean-cut paparazzi like images of them to the public.

There are those who will also argue that standing by taking photographs of the dead and the dying is degrading and insulting. This is of course one of the most difficult dilemmas war photographers face, and they often speak of the guilt they experience for documenting rather than helping.

In 2009 in Afghanistan, Julie Jacobson broke a media ground rule that you shouldn’t photograph a casualty in a way that means they can be identified. She describes the decision as “a public act. I got a lot of flak. Bernard later died, and people said that I didn’t give him dignity, that I should have helped him. But I couldn’t help him. For me to turn my back, that’s disrespectful.”

Famous War Photographs

There are a number of iconic images taken by war photographers that have changed the way the public view conflicts.

Eddie Adams, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong prisoner, Vietnam, 1968

War Photography - Eddie Adams, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong prisoner
Image Source: Recuerdos de Pandora

Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Vietnam is one of the most famous war photographs of all time. However, the image raises the question of whether a snapshot can give a distorted view of a story? In fact, the prisoner had just killed around 8 people which is what led to his execution.

Adams later felt that the image was unfair to the police chief who carried out the execution. The impact that the image had on the public perception of the war ‘haunted Gen Loan until his death.’

Larry Burrows, Reaching Out 1966

War Photography - Larry Burrows, Reaching Out 1966
Image Source: Larry Burrows – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Another photo from the Vietnamese conflict, Larry Burrows ‘Reaching Out’ is a powerful reminder of the confusion and horrors of war. The photo was taken on a mud splattered hill just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Vietnam, after a fierce fire fight. It depicts an injured soldier reaching out to a traumatized comrade. National Public Radio describes it as an expression of the‘paradox of war; finding evidence of compassion within a hellish circumstance.’

Amazingly, the picture was not published in Life Magazine until several years after it was taken, despite running several other pictures that he took on the same assignment. In 1971, ‘Reaching Out’ was run for the first time. However, the occasion for publication was sombre – the article the picture was contained in was a commemoration piece for Burrows, who had been killed in a helicopter crash in Laos.

Distro- D-Day & The Normandy Campaign 1944 by Robert Capa R

War Photography - Distro- D-Day & The Normandy Campaign
Image Source: Robert Capa R – I.C.P. Collection

Robert Capa is perhaps the best known of all World War Two photographers. In the early hours of the now infamous D-Day, he climbed into a landing craft with the men of Company E and headed for Omaha Beach. He had already risked his life on more than one occasion during the Spanish Civil War and was known to say, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

His images of D-Day are resultantly some of the grittiest ever taken in the conflict, offering the viewer a real insight into what it was like to be there on the famous day. In his book Slightly Out of Focus, Capa remembered feeling “a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face.”

“The Falling Soldier” by Robert Capa

War Photography - The Falling Soldier
Image Source: Robert Capa – I.C.P. Collection

Another image by Robert Capa ‘The Falling Soldier’ is seen by many to encapsulate the Spanish Civil War. The image shows the moment a Loyalist fighter was shot and killed, and sums up the Fascist violence and the ruthless extinguishing of the Republican’s hope for a new and free society.

After this photograph was taken, the dictator Franco went onto rule Spain for forty years, having overthrown a legitimate government. He thrived in the face of international complacency, and subjected Spain to brutal authoritarian law and secret police. This photograph goes some way to summing up the injustice.


Perhaps the most important requirements for the profession are personal attributes. Entering some of the world’s most dangerous areas and seeing the stuff of most people’s nightmares, is clearly not for the faint hearted.

Bravery, the ability to deal with intense fear, determination, vision for the story you want to tell and a passion for journalism and social justice are necessities. If you’re going to risk your life, you need to be aware of and care deeply about your motivations for doing it.

Aside from this, there are certain technical capabilities required. You probably aren’t going to wake up one day having never taken an interest in photography in your life, and set out on your career as a war photojournalist.

Most people in this line of work will have completed some kind of photography course, or at the very least have developed skills in their free time – a decent portfolio is indispensable.

Most photojournalists work freelance or on temporary assignments and will often not have their expenses covered or travel arranged. To secure an assignment with a big media outlet, a photographer would have to be very well-known and with an excellent reputation. However, some companies do offer photojournalism work-shops abroad for amateur photographers and students.

War photographers put themselves in some of the most dangerous and highly-charged situations in the world. They photograph the horrors that nobody wants to see, to force us to be aware of the atrocities being carried out in war-torn countries.

Their role is undoubtedly hugely important, and this alone is the motivation for many of them. Without their images many atrocities would go unreported, and dictators and politicians’ actions would go unwatched. Their continuing reportage in current conflicts will help to shock us into acknowledging the horrors going on in our world.

However, there is another side to war photography, one that raises numerous questions about the morality of photographing the dead and the dying. Many people feel that standing by taking photographs rather than helping in someone’s final moments is degrading and insulting, and this is an admitted point of internal conflict for many war photographers.

On top of these issues the use of a single image to sum up a situation throws up numerous problems. The lack of context can implicate and demonize those in the photo without explaining the reasons behind their actions, as well as coloring the public’s view in regards to a situation or conflict without fully informing them of the facts.

War photography is clearly a contentious issue with a lot to be considered. What are your views on war photography? Is it essential that we see these horrifying images? Let us know in the comments.


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