The first casualty when war comes is truth.
U.S. Senator Hiram W. Johnson (1866-1945), to whom that dictum is ascribed, probably didn’t have photojournalists in mind. Still, “The Shadow of War,” a show at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris, includes more than one image whose truthfulness leaves something to be desired.
The exhibition opens with one of the most notorious examples, Robert Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” (1936), the picture of a militant supposedly at the moment of death in the Spanish Civil War. Capa gave conflicting accounts of its origin and was accused of having staged the scene.
Another famous picture is that of a Red Army soldier who hoists a hammer-and-sickle flag on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin. After the Soviet Union’s demise, photographer Yevgeny Khaldei revealed that he had been under orders to remove an embarrassing detail: The officer supporting the soldier wore a watch on each wrist, providing evidence of postwar looting. The thief disappeared.
To unmask the photographers and their censors, however, isn’t the purpose of the show. Organized by the Fondazione Umberto Veronesi, it aims at promoting disarmament and the “Science of Peace.”
You may wonder if “science” is the right word for that noble cause. Nevertheless, the 90 photographs depicting the horrors of war, many well-known examples among them, will impress even the most jaded visitor.
Wartime photojournalism began in the middle of the 19th century. For a long time, though, the camera was unable to capture the dramatic action the public was accustomed to from battle paintings and graphic illustrations.
Only when the Spanish Civil War broke out, in 1936, did small cameras, more sensitive film and transmission by wire open the way to the kind of coverage that we know today. This is where the show starts.
It then moves on to World War II and the Vietnam War. The difference, from the press photographers’ point of view, was that in Vietnam they enjoyed a freedom from censorship that had been unthinkable previously.
Dmitri Baltermants’s powerful image of Russian women identifying the dead after a massacre in Crimea was published after the war in Western magazines. Only at the very end of the conflict, in April 1945, did the U.S. authorities allow the depiction of a dead Allied serviceman, Capa’s photograph of a sniped corporal in Leipzig.
Most of the classic snapshots from the Vietnam War are here, including Eddie Adams’s execution of a Vietcong prisoner in the streets of Saigon and Nick Ut’s naked girl fleeing from a village that had been attacked with napalm bombs.
Later photographs are from the conflicts in Biafra, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Kosovo and, finally, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 1985, a French magazine portrayed a young war photographer with the caption: “Twenty years old, the most gorgeous babes, danger, the world’s strongest drugs, pals. And they even pay you.” That romantic glorification glosses over the fact that many photographers paid for their courage with their lives, including Capa who was killed in Indochina.
The last picture in the show, of an exhausted GI in Afghanistan, was shot by Tim Hetherington for Vanity Fair. Covering the fighting in Libya, he was killed in April by a mortar shell in the besieged city of Misrata.
“L’Ombre de la Guerre” is at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris through Sept. 25. Information: http://www.mep-fr.org or +33-1-4478-7500.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)