Photography is a word derived from the Greek words photos (“light”) and graphein (“to draw”). The value of photographs of war lies in the shock they inflict on the audience, and in the use of tragic captions of violence and death for artistic purposes. One example that shows the characteristics mentioned above is the Civil War black and white photograph entitled “Confederate Dead behind the Stone Wall at Mary’s Height”. This photograph is a piece of history that shows the consequences of war, while also bringing into discussion the problematic of voyeurism.
“On the morning of the 4th, while waiting for orders to commence the bridge, I walked over the battle-ground, and examined the heights beyond Marye’s house. I then realized the great strength of the position and the impossibility of taking it, if properly defended, by a direct assult in front, as had been attempted by Burnside with disastrous results. My photographic artist, Captain Russell, was with me and secured several large photographic negatives — one very good one of the stone wall, with the rebel dead lying behind it.” (Haupt 194)
The American Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the first wars captured on film. The portraits of Civil War generals and the images of fields littered with corpses in the aftermath of battle drastically changed how people looked at war. Therefore, for the first time in history, people could view the carnage and tragedy of battlefields far from home. In this way, Civil War photographs stripped away the Victorian-era romance around warfare. The American Civil War was the first war in history that was brought home to the public through album cards, stereographs, and newspaper depictions. Therefore, media played an important role in the portrayal of the Civil War to American citizens.
The photograph “Confederate Dead behind the Stone Wall at Mary’s Height” serves as valuable historical evidence because of the importance of the American Civil War in the historical consciousness of the United States. The northern victory in the war preserved the United States as one nation and ended the institution of slavery. The tragedy of this photograph lies in the cost of 625,000 lives that perished in this war. On May 3rd 1863, Andrew J. Russell captured in this photograph dead confederates of Barksdale’s brigade, during the battle of Chancellorsville. This is one of his most famous photographs, but he also took over a thousand photos which were exclusively distributed to President Lincoln. Because of the widespread destruction showed in this photograph, this image serves as historical evidence that shows the violence and tragedy of war. Therefore, this photograph depicts as Virginia Wolf formulates it: “simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye” (Sonntag, 26).
Moreover, apart from being tragic souvenirs of history, photographs depicting war were also used as propaganda tools that had an intended effect on the audience, which is most cases was to produce shock. The reason behind this affirmation lies in the fact that most photographs at that time, and also these days to a certain degree, were staged by photographers. Bodies of dead soldiers were used as props and positioned in a certain way to increase the dramatic effect and to add more “artistic value” to the photograph. In this photograph, the whole background resembles a theatre stage. The corpses and the guns are used as props in this process of creating a tragic, yet artistic, image. The trauma and hopelessness of war are symbolically shown through the positioning of dead soldiers in a valley that resembles a river of death.
One important aspect that should be taken into consideration when analyzing this photograph is the dehumanization of the dead soldiers. Their bodies are used as props with the purpose of sending a message about warfare and the consequences of war. Their death is a collective and anonymous death. Because of the positioning of the guns and the bodies in the capture, I can also argue that the main focus of the camera is on the guns, rather than on the dead soldiers. Therefore, once again the problematic of warfare is brought into limelight, and together with it the fact that there are no winners in war. The photograph is, in this case, a quote about the tragedy of war. Because of all the characteristics mentioned above, this image was used as a propaganda tool that carries shock value.
One could compare this photograph with the famous photograph entitled “A Harvest of War” shot by Alexander Gardner. Both photographs send a useful message by showing the crude reality of war. In fact, the text Gardner wrote to accompany “A Harvest of Death” indicates: “Such a picture conveys a useful moral: It shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to its pageantry.” However, I can also say that both photographs bring into discussion the problematic of voyeurism because of the way the dead bodies of soldiers are displayed and framed. This was the beginning of a time in which shock became a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value. The shock value lies in the morbidity of the photographs. Therefore, the problematic of voyeurism should be taken into consideration when analyzing “Confederate Dead behind the Stone Wall at Mary’s Height”. The message of the photographs goes hand in hand with the provocation:
Can you look at this?
Regarding this provocation Susan Sontag wrote: “There is the satisfaction at being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching”.
Sontag also wrote that “narratives make us understand, photographs do something else: they haunt us”. Therefore, through these images a war is forever captured on the retina of human conscience.
Moreover, this photograph also exploits the seductiveness of war. This is possible because the camera places a physical object between the person viewing and the person being viewed. The physical barrier encourages an emotional distance in the viewer. This is why in this photograph the tragedy and horror of war can be romanticized. Because of all these things mentioned, I could also bring into discussion the perversity of photography.
Diane Arbus once wrote: “I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do. That was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.”
Nowadays photographs are still used as propaganda tools, historical evidence, and images that carry shock value to emotionally impact the viewers. However, the shock value has drastically increased over time. One recent example that shows this disturbing need for shocking photographs is the example of the three years old Syrian boy found dead on a shore by a Turkish policeman. This image was shared for weeks on social media to raise awareness of the thousands of people, including children, which are killed because of the Syrian war. The photograph haunted citizens all over the world.
In conclusion, the photograph analyzed in this essay serves as historical evidence that shows the tragedy of the Civil War in which more than 600.000 Americans lost their lives, and also as a propaganda tool that uses shock value to psychologically and emotionally impact the audience. The power of this photograph lies on the message it sends, which is closely connected to the horror, violence, and hopelessness of war. Because tragic photographs haunt our memories, they have the ability to tap into our moral conscience, and make us question topics that we would have otherwise perhaps chosen to ignore.
Sontag, Susan. “Regarding the Pain of Others”.