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FITM Subjectivity in Depicting Truth in War Photography Discussion

FITM Subjectivity in Depicting Truth in War Photography Discussion


In war photographs, there is a complex interplay between reality and art.

I fully identify with the notion that war photos provide us a peek at unmodified truth and open a window into the unfiltered, frequently gruesome experiences that define combat. War images have a weight of realism that is challenging to dismiss in a world where art and media may occasionally muddle the distinction between fact and fantasy. Photographs record events frozen in time, giving us a reality that exists independently of an artist’s perspective, in contrast to paintings, which the artist’s interpretation can impact.

Combat photography’s strength lies in its ability to cut across social, emotional, and cultural divides. These images stir up powerful feelings that help us empathize with and comprehend the experiences of others. For instance, “Harvest of Death” by O’Sullivan and “Vietnamese Girl” by Ut are more than just accounts of actual historical occurrences; they are powerful reminders of the agony, dread, and loss that define war. The image of Kim Phuc, a little Vietnamese girl with napalm burns on her body, captures the tragedy of war in a single still image. These pictures are not just works of art but actual historical records.

However, even though combat photos appear to show reality, they also have a built-in bias due to the photographer’s point of view. Subjectivity is introduced into the process by deciding when and where to hit the shutter button. A good illustration is “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” by Roger Fenton. His image of a desolate Crimean landscape covered in cannonballs illustrates his attempt to show the effects of war. However, it has been claimed that the placement of the cannonballs was changed for compositional reasons. This modification makes us wonder about the delicate balance between artistic intent and the responsibility to depict reality correctly.

When we consider how these images influence public perception and historical memory, the conflict between truth and creativity becomes more difficult. The moral outrage caused by the emotional impact of war photos can affect political and popular opinion. This ability carries both benefits and drawbacks. It can inspire action and raise awareness, but it can also be used for propaganda by carefully choosing images and shaping narratives.

I completely agree with what you said regarding compassion and loving kindness. Photographs from war are powerful reminders of how we have all failed to end violence and war. They also emphasize our ability to empathize with others and our capacity for change. We can be motivated to create a more compassionate world by facing these stark facts through images that witness suffering. With their bare honesty, war photos force us to face hard facts and work toward a time when they are no longer required.

In reply to a classmate

Your viewpoint on combat photos as raw, unadulterated views of reality is persuasive. These pictures provide a singular window into the unpleasant realities of war. Your observation that those who fled the Ukraine crisis had shared firsthand video is noteworthy; it exemplifies how visual media can help us understand the connections between distant wars and our lives.

I want to put up the notion that even when images record truth, their perception can still be swayed by the prejudices and preconceptions of the spectator. For instance, while one person may see a war photo as a call to action against violence, another may interpret it as further evidence of the world’s brutality. This makes it possible for even ostensibly untouched photographs to be open to various interpretations.

In any event, the ethical implications of these pictures powerfully resonate with your emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness as essential qualities. These photographs help us see our common humanity; by doing so, we may strive to make the world a better place.

FITM Subjectivity in Depicting Truth in War Photography Discussion





Art and Truth

This is a “Reflect and Respond” Application Assignment. For these assignments I ask you to think deeply about something I’ve covered in the module and to share your thoughts or opinions on the subject.  These assignments are designed to help create a depth of understanding and engagement with the material that we’re looking at, often by creating a space for you to dialog with your classmates.


In this module, we looked at a couple of photographs that documented the horrors of war (O’Sullivan’s Harvest of Death, and Ut’s Vietnamese Girl).  As photographs, they carry with them a certain claim to accuracy and truth that we as viewers have come to expect from journalists. And yet, they are also artworks that reflect the perspectives of their makers.  For this assignment, I would like us to use those artworks (and the two additional photos I have included below) as a platform for a bigger conversation about art, truth and fiction. What do we expect when we look at photographs of war? Do we expect an unmediated image, or one that has been altered and composed to communicate the feelings of being there?  Is one type of artwork true, and the other false?  Is it possible to be true and false at the same time? To help us answer those questions, I want to focus our attention on two of the very first war photographs ever taken: Roger Fenton’s “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” 1855. Instead of reading something about the artworks, I want you to listen to the RadioLab podcast episode “In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt,” which aired Sept. 24, 2012.  It’s a wonderful exploration of how images fit into our pursuit of truth, and what our expectations are regarding the role of art in the documentation of war. You can stream the audio below, or visit the https://radiolab.org/podcast for more information.  After you listen, you should post your thoughts on the subject of art, truth, and fictions below.


  1. Read and listen to the assigned materials from the lecture and this assignment.
  2. Start your post with a topic sentence, in bold, that identifies one thing about this discussion of art and truth that you feel strongly about.
  3. Compose a substantial post that explains why you think or feel that way, using concrete examples from the artworks covered (O’Sullivan’s Harvest of Death, Ut’s Vietnamese Girl, and Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death) and their relationship to truth and fiction.
  1. Respond to at least one post of a classmate, engaging with their ideas. Do their views modify or reinforce your opinion?

I think we look at war photographs to get a perception of unaltered reality. Paintings are made according to the way how the artist perceives and later expresses what he experiences, but photos, on the other hand, show us how life and events really are. I think the fascination with war photographs comes from the natural human pursuit of truth. In war, we are stripped down of our egos and we see the horror of it in the spotlight. When we see war photographs like those listed above and in the readings we see the raw material of what is really happening, forever captured by the flash of a camera.

There is no fiction in war and we get a disturbed feeling that is way less strong than the subjects of the photos experience it. It humbles us, shocks us, and also helps put things into perspective of the comfortable lives we are living in America. I know Ukrainians displaced by the war and the photos and videos they show me from the front lines help give me insight into my life and help me understand what really matters.

What matters is compassion and loving-kindness. Everything else is relative. If we have more compassion we would never have to see any war again. Unfortunately, that is not the case and these photos stand as a testament that as humans we are not yet as developed as we would like to think.

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