Saturday, 9 May 2015

Battleground images – a thought

The course notes repeat the widely accepted assertion that Fenton manipulated the cannon-balls in Valley of the Shadow of Death. Before moving on to consider images in which bodies appear to have been posed the notes then say “Physically manipulating a battleground scene is surely objectionable enough.” I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment implicit in this.

In what sense is moving cannonballs objectionable? Presumably the course author is not trying to suggest that no battle occurred, and that at some stage there were not cannonballs on the road, as we all know the former to be true and it’s seems highly unlikely the latter would be false unless cannonballs were handily designed to deposit themselves in a ditch after firing. While the fine detail of the image may well be incorrect (rather like the absence of colour) there does not seem to be any evidence that the photographer was trying to invent a battle where none occurred.

The image title on the other hand is a complete fabrication – the charge of the Light Brigade occurred elsewhere. Whatever else happened at this location no-one galloped “half a league onwards” here. So what we have appears to be an early example of documentary fiction – which in the circumstances hardly seems to justify the term “objectionable” – especially given the physical limitations of the available technology, and the political limitations of being effectively an official war photographer.

To my mind Fenton’s image is an entirely acceptable method of conveying that something very dramatic – and quite terrifying for the individuals involved – occurred in this location to an audience who had little idea of what was actually happening. I feel the same about Brady’s Civil War images and Beato’s images of the Sepoy Rebellion – even though the latter two photographers were much more graphic in their use of human remains. I do not see any evidence that the purpose of moving the bodies was purely aesthetic. It seems the to me that the aim was/is to convey the true impact of war to an otherwise relatively ignorant audience, and I would argue that these ends justified the means – it may be unpleasant, but it is not objectionable.

As Sontag notes in Regarding the Pain of Others, prior to the Vietnam War many of the most iconic images were probably faked – the only surprising thing is that we are surprised or disappointed by this. With time they have become historical evidence – and as impure in that respect as most evidence. Its seems futile to judge behaviours from the 1850s against standards established more than a century later.


Open College of the Arts, 2015. Photography 2: Documentary. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Sontag, S., 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin.

Toler, P., 2012. In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Roger Fenton's Crimean War Photos. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 09 May 2015].

Zhang, M., 2012. Famous ‘Valley Of The Shadow Of Death’ Photo Was Almost Certainly Staged. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 09 May 2015].

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