Portraits of War

Portraits of War

The camera became the critical tool in helping us understand the ravages of conflict

Published on November 8, 2013

Since its creation, this country has been served by men and women willing to put their lives on the line. To guard the American values of freedom and justice, heroes and sacrifices are made generation after generation. And lest we ever forget that, photographers have risked their own lives to chronicle these selfless acts of courage.

This Veterans Day, Washington Post Magazine honors the warriors and the photographers. In this package you will find exceptional photography from 10 exceptional war photographers: five from modern wars and five from the Civil War.

American war photography began during the Civil War. Mathew Brady was the first to photograph battlefields before the dead and dying were taken away. The public was stunned. Shooting pictures then required the photographer to swipe a combination of chemical washes on glass plates immediately before inserting the plates into the camera.

Today, modern technology allows photographers to be beside soldiers and transmit in real time. The public sees the horror and heroism daily. With this come complicated issues of ethics and politics, but most important, photographers now risk their lives on the front lines, too.

What follows here is a portfolio of the tradition of bringing war in all its difficult nature to people, and to history.

Mathew Brady


Above: The scene of the wounded soldier is fairly typical of many other Civil War photographers. Left: Sgt. Francis Edwin Brownell, a Union soldier. Right: President Abraham Lincoln.

Brady remains the single most famous photographer of the Civil War. His name came to overshadow those of other photographers, causing some mistakenly to believe that Brady had almost single-handedly created the immense photographic archive.

Brady deserves credit for envisioning the possibility of using photography systematically to document the war. He would send teams of photographers – and occasionally go himself – to create images of battlefields and important leaders. His public display of “The Dead of Antietam” was the first time the American public viewed images of dead soldiers on the battlefield.

Brady’s efforts to document the Civil War pushed him into a series of bankruptcies. In the years after the war, he campaigned to get Congress to buy his collection of negatives and prints. In 1875, Congress finally bought the rights to his work for $25,000.

Above: Ramallah, West Bank, 2000. At the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising, demonstrators hurled molotovs at Israeli troops. (James Nachtwey)

James Nachtwey

El Salvador. Lebanon. Afghanistan. Iraq. Somalia. Bosnia. For almost four decades, Nachtwey has sought the raw, human moments hidden during desperate times in these and other places. His pictures demand your attention, daring you to forget what you have just seen and felt.

His images have appeared in Time magazine and in exhibits in museums and galleries around the world. In 2000 he published a retrospective book titled “Inferno.”

Gitarama, Rwanda, 1994. A man who had just been liberated from a Hutu concentration camp. (James Nachtwey)

“Making a distinction between art and photography always seemed artificial to me,” he says. “My decision to become a photographer was deeply influenced by contemporary images of the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement. I saw the pictures in newspapers and magazines, but their context in journalism did not diminish their visual, emotional or intellectual power. On the contrary, because the images informed a mass population of events that were occurring at the time, they gained an urgency and social value that increased the power they might have had in a purely art context. Before deciding to become a photographer, I visited the Prado museum in Madrid and happened upon Goya’s ‘Disasters of War.’ They were etchings, made before the invention of photography, yet they depicted the barbarity of war with such immediacy, I saw a direct connection with the photographic images of my own time, and considered Goya to be the patriarch of war photographers even though he never used a camera.”


Above: Union soldiers look out over a Union encampment at Cumberland Landing, Va., in May 1862.  Left: Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, all Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters at Brandy Station, Va. Right: From the beginning of the war, some slaves emancipated themselves by fleeing to Union army camps.

James Gibson


The least known of the major Civil War photographers, Gibson helped take some of the most dramatic images of the war. In March 1862, Gibson worked with George Barnard to photograph the Bull Run battlefield, which had recently been evacuated by the Confederates. Their photographs were some of the first “Incidents of the War” stereo images that Mathew Brady sold to the public.

In April 1862, Gibson accompanied the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign and compiled an extensive photographic record. In September that year, Gibson served as Alexander Gardner’s assistant as they took photographs of the battlefield of Antietam. Working quickly during the days immediately after the fighting, Gardner and Gibson took the first American images of dead soldiers upon the field of battle.

In July 1863, Gibson and Gardner took photographs of the Gettysburg battlefield. Gardner and Gibson were able to photograph some of the Confederate dead still awaiting burial.

Carol Guzy

In this 1999 photo, Kosovar refugee Agim Shala, 2, is passed through a fence as family members are reunited at a refugee camp in Albania. Above: In Haiti in 1994, U.S. troops protect a suspect from the crowd after an explosion at a march in support of ousted leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Someone once told me it’s not imagining how you would feel in a given situation: It’s the ability to break through your own veil of life experiences and truly see how someone else is feeling,” writes Carol Guzy, who has earned four Pulitzer Prizes as a newspaper photojournalist, most recently for The Washington Post. “We’ve seen throughout history how selective compassion breeds hate and conflict. In my humble opinion, if all life is not equal to the same level of kindness we wish for ourselves, it becomes the foundation for abuse. And when we turn away from oppression, our silence becomes complicity.”

Guzy grew up in Pennsylvania with her mother and trained to be a nurse before picking up a camera. After a stint at the Miami Herald, where she covered the devastating volcanic eruption in Colombia in 1985, Guzy covered the plight of Kosovo refugees, famine in Ethiopia, civil unrest in Haiti, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

“It’s humbling to witness acts of genuine courage and kindness by those some would unwisely think the least among us. People living in abject poverty offer this stranger their last piece of bread and shelter from harm,” Guzy says. “Sometimes the dignity with which people deal with adversity is most revealing. To tell their stories is a privilege. We are challenged in our work not only to examine issues and expose problems but also to find poetry in everyday lives.

Above: Union soldiers made use of the lawns surrounding the Tennessee State Capitol during the Battle of Nashville.

George Barnard


At the outbreak of the Civil War, Barnard was one of the country’s most experienced photographers. In 1846, he opened a daguerreotype studio in Oswego, N.Y. By 1860, he had sold his business and was working for Mathew Brady in New York City.

In early March 1861, within a few days of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, Barnard was in Washington taking studio portraits and photographing scenes of daily life in nearby army camps. In March 1862, eight months after the first Battle of Bull Run, Confederate troops withdrew from the area. This allowed Barnard and James Gibson to take the first photographs of the battlefield.

By December 1863, Barnard was hired by the Department of Engineers of the Army of the Cumberland. Stationed in Nashville, he shot maps, the main assignment for all army photographers.

When Atlanta fell to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces in September August 1864, Barnard took a series of images that forms his most important contribution to the photographic history of the war.

Above: A Croatian boy in August 1991 at the funeral of his father, a policeman who was ambushed and killed during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Christopher Morris

Drawn to conflict early in his career, Morris endured loneliness and shell shock in Afghanistan in the late 1980s as he learned to survive on the front lines. “The most crucial thing to teach yourself is how to control fear,” writes Morris, who also covered the invasion of Panama, the Persian Gulf War and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

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“Conflict photography was and still is the art of trying to capture one man attempting to kill another man. This is not an easy task.”

Unlike many of his colleagues, Morris chose to have a family, which led to other editorial work, including photographing Republicans in America during the George W. Bush administration. That resulted in his book “My America.” Now he shoots fashion as well.

When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened, however, he was back in Iraq with troops storming into Baghdad. “It’s ironic, for my current work is so static and structured. With conflict it was all about attempting to convey the intensity of the situation. While working I was never really consciously trying to emulate movement – it just so happened to be situations that were so very fluid. Sometimes this comes out in an image.”

Above: The dead at Gettysburg.

Timothy O’Sullivan


O’Sullivan was the youngest of the major photographers of the Civil War. In 1858, he was hired as an assistant in Mathew Brady’s Washington studio, where he was trained by Alexander Gardner. O’Sullivan’s first field assignment was in early 1863, when Brady sent him to take stereoscopic images of Union-held territory along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

In spring 1863, O’Sullivan began working for Alexander Gardner, who had left Brady’s enterprise and opened his own studio. In July that year, O’Sullivan traveled with Gardner and Gibson to photograph the Gettysburg battlefield.

In the years after the war, O’Sullivan headed west, where he photographed the region around Virginia City, Nev. He died of tuberculosis at age 42.

Above: In January 1995, Russians tried to gain control of Grozny. But the Chechens did not engage in conventional warfare. They infiltrated Russian lines with hit teams. A victim’s silhouette can be seen in the snow.

Stanley Greene

It was the eminent photojournalist W. Eugene Smith whose words shaped Greene’s career. Smith had warned Greene of becoming a poet of photography, covering topics of little value, because the world needed concerned photographers. It was the 1970s. Greene gave up his life in San Francisco photographing punk and rock stars and moved to Paris, where he immersed himself in the ideas of the cafe society. In 1989 he was solidly in the social-documentary world as he stood, camera in hand, watching the Berlin Wall break apart. Four years later he was the only photographer inside the White House in Moscow when Parliament tried to stage a coup against Boris Yeltsin.

But it was Chechnya and the rebels within that commandeered Greene’s attention for the next decade, resulting in his book “Open Wound.” “At first war photography seemed like a way to test myself, to exist on a knife-edge where there is constant proof of being alive,” writes Greene. “Today covering conflicts is quite simply a very personal form of protest.”

Greene’s most recent work is of the rebels in Syria.

Top Left: Michael O’Laughlen. Top Right: Samuel Arnold. Above: On July 7, 1865, the U.S. government allowed Gardner to be the only photographer inside Fort McNair in Washington to capture scenes of the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Paine), David Herold and George Atzerodt, who had been convicted and condemned to die for their roles in conspiring to assassinate Lincoln.

Alexander Gardner


Before his emigration from Scotland to the United States in 1856, Gardner worked briefly as a photographer. Two years after he moved, Gardner was in charge of Mathew Brady’s studio in Washington.

In September 1862, Brady sent Gardner, with James Gibson, to Antietam. Together the two created a visual record that included the first American photographs of dead soldiers on the battlefield. In the exhibit “The Dead of Antietam,” Brady presented some images in his New York gallery – the first time Americans were exposed to images of those killed in battle.

In 1863, Gardner opened his own studio in Washington and continued to take important battlefield photographs – most famously at Gettysburg. He became known as an excellent portrait photographer, with national leaders posing for his camera. He was also allowed to photograph some of the men suspected of conspiring to assassinate Lincoln.

Above: An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory as she searches for her husband in the vicinity of the fire in Basra, Iraq, May 26, 2003. The fire was allegedly started by looters.

Lynsey Addario

Recognizing that the oppression of women was a story within the story of the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Addario traveled to Kabul as a freelancer. She photographed weddings and life behind the veil of a burqa. Then 9/11 happened. When war arrived, Addario donned her flak jacket and traveled to the battlefields and prisons of Afghanistan and Iraq as easily as she had visited families and the meeting places of the Taliban.

“As a female photojournalist, I fall into this nebulous category of a third sex: I have access to both men and women,” she writes. “I can cover combat with my male colleagues, but am also able to work inside the home, in intimate family settings, while it is culturally unacceptable for my male colleagues to do the same.” Addario has covered conflicts in Lebanon, Darfur, Congo and Libya and continues to highlight the women and children of war, who suffer the consequences of decisions made around them. In 2009 she received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Civil War written by Robert Dietle
Modern War written by Bronwen Latimer
Civil War photo research by Tim Broekema
Civil War photos courtesy of Library of Congress/Prints and Photographs Division
Editing by MaryAnne Golon and Bronwen Latimer

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