Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs

Personal Professional Development

I decided to watch the BBC documentary, ‘Hidden Histories: ww1’s forgotten photographs’, and I found it a lot more fascinating and inspiring then I originally thought I would. I have always personally been interested in the world wars and history in general, so that side really captured me as well as the photograph and the importance and effect that it had within world war one.

I always thought that some appointed, professional man had been there documenting the trenches and battlefields whilst the soldiers were busy fighting for there country and life. But in actual fact every photograph that we see of this war was taken by a solider. What does it mean? Well firstly, we can see first hand the soldiers way of life, we can see intimacy and a break down of privacy and we can see how war effect these men first hand rather then reading second hand accounts; evidence.

So what stage was photography at during pre-1914? Well photography was blooming; the 5 shillings Kodak Brownie camera meant that ordinary families could record amateurish, snapshot images; creating this importance of the photograph to an ordinary person, not just a wealthier person or the photographer. However, when war broke out, the soldiers wanted to take a camera to record this “great adventure”, that they were all so excited for. So they turned to the Vest Pocket Kodak, also known as the “soldiers camera”. It was a small camera that was easy to operate, making it perfect for assess ability but also convenient for someone who had no idea about cameras. How it works is you pull the lens out and you have two different apertures; 1/50 (for sunny days) and 1/25 (for more of a cloudy day). You can also change the focus, from portraits to landscapes. Even though this was a small camera, it allowed the user to choose detailing’s, so it had possibilities of being more then just a camera to take of friends but to delve into the world of documentary photography and art.

Over 30,000 had been sold within one year, showing their popularity. Although, at a hefty price of 30 shillings, it meant that the customers were mostly officers rather than privates. As popularity continued there became more hype and excitement, especially shown through media. For example, in March 1915 there was an article that featured in the Amateur Photography magazine called, ‘Some Practical Notes By One Who Has Been There’, written by Medico. It was a piece showing telling these “camera operators” how to photograph to get the most out of your war adventure and your Kodak. It contained three main tips which included; don’t flourish your camera in front of generals, don’t take a photograph that could be of help to the enemy and don’t use all your film on the voyage out.

Because thousands of soldiers were taking all these images they began to appear uncensored at the time within magazines, creating a market for photographs. However, on 20th December 1914 John French announced that soldiers were not permitted to take photographs from now on. However, most of the soldiers wouldn’t have known due to travelling and being abroad, therefore most carried on unknowingly. Three days after the ban was in place there was a truce, in which German and British soldiers stopped fighting and enjoyed being men for a day. Contrariwise we wouldn’t have any of this evidence if soldiers didn’t photograph this outstanding and beautiful moment. On the 8th of January these few images made the press and of course the government wasn’t happy, but this increased even more the demand for photographs from the front line, and there were even competitions that began to pop up, offering high prizes for the winner. But of course the government was frightened by that as they didn’t want the English to see that the Germans were actually very similar to them and think that the war was unnecessary, but also they were worried they would “load, aim and shoot their cameras rather than their revolvers”. So on 16th march 1915 cameras became banned completely, with consequences such as hard labour and imprisonment. Meanwhile in Germany, Kiser Wilhelm encouraged soldiers to take cameras to document their swift and quick victory. There were even photography schemes like sending off your unused cameras to give to a solider that would benefit from it more.

So what did this mean for Britain? Well fortunately, within this documentary we see that a handful of privates and officers kept their cameras whilst many were quickly sending them back to their families. We see a swift change from images being of groups of friends and exciting moments, to death and destruction, the men beginning to gain an understanding of the pointlessness of war through taking photographs. I don’t want to give away these personal accounts that we look through during the program because I really want you to watch it for yourself, but they are truly remarkable. I particularly like the story of Fred Davidson and how he photographed the war in a dark way before being shot in the front line, but the most beautiful part is the first image that he takes within the hospital when he wakes up, it is truly remarkable. The government began to realise the importance of the camera and moral and they even employed Ernest Brooks, Britain’s first appointed war photographer. Overall, the preciousness of the photograph will always be shown within moments such as this. Without these brave soldiers showing us an insight into their personal life and also the horrors of the war, we would not have any record of this, which is unbelievable if you think of it. I would love for you to all spend an hour watching this documentary, and give appreciation not just to our ancestors but also to the camera, that is heavily taken for granted.



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