In the years leading up to the Second World War, the availability of portable lightweight cameras opened up an array of opportunities for the photographer. The work of George Silk, in his coverage of Australia’s military involvement in the Greece and Crete campaigns of 1941, enables us to see how this technology helped him to document both the military action and the civilian refugee experience.

Refugees at the entrance to a chapel, April 1941. AWM 007751

New Zealander George Silk was 23 when the Second World War started in 1939. In his youth he had worked in a camera store and gained substantial experience in using small,  lightweight cameras such as the Rolleiflex and Contax. The portability and unobtrusiveness of these cameras meant he could take photos quickly, without having to concern himself with setting up a tripod or dealing with glass plates. He developed a passion for documenting people and wanted to transfer these skills and experience to war photography.

In March 1940, Silk came to Australia as a civilian and was employed as a war photographer by the Commonwealth Cinema Branch run by the Department of Information (DOI). He was given the rank of honorary captain. This appointment was extremely controversial, as the Army had not been consulted and Silk’s experience and suitability were questioned. The security clearance for Silk came through from New Zealand when he was already on board a troop ship travelling towards the Mediterranean.

Silk’s first assignment was to cover Australia’s military efforts in Greece and Crete in 1941. His skill in using the portable camera gave him the opportunity to photograph Australian soldiers in battle or at rest, and allowed him to pursue his own personal mandate: “a crusade to document what happened to the Diggers”.

Children carrying water and other essentials, April 1941. AWM 007774

Compared with the heavy box cameras used in the First World War, the new lightweight cameras gave Silk relative freedom of movement around the men in the battlefield. His photographs captured the personalities of Australian soldiers, and represented them as strong, resilient men, which suited the DOI’s need for positive and heroic images of Australians at war. A number appear throughout this issue.In contrast to these images, Silk also recorded the displacement of refugees created by the fighting. This was not in the brief from the DOI. However, using the same documentary style, he was able to represent the human side of war, that of the innocent, the civilian. In these photographs, Silk represents the personal stories of the refugees and the direct impact of war on their lives.

These photographs focus on the realities of war. The names of these people are unknown and Silk has managed to capture their human fragility. In one image Silk photographed an entire family that had been displaced, their temporary home a cliff’s edge. A small boy brought a painting with him, a reminder of his home, to be hung on the wall of the rock caves. Silk’s other photographs depict children carrying water – the basic life support – and a child with his pet goat.

Silk’s photograph of the chapel built on the rock ledge is one of the most important of these photographs. This image demonstrates the refugees’ commitment to personal religious belief and the rebuilding of a place of worship.

Silk’s use of new camera technology enabled him to present to Australia a close-up and personal view of the war. His passion for documenting humanity, and his ability  to disclose to the viewer the effect of war on the civilian, are demonstrated in his coverage of the Greece and Crete campaigns.

Little boy who took to the mountains for safety with his pet goat, April 1941. AWM 007752

Author: Ally Roche is a curator in the Photographs Section of the Australian War Memorial.