Contact: Photographs and the modern experience of war

Official photographers

Since the First World War, the wartime experiences of Australian service personnel have been recorded by photographers working in a range of official capacities. During the First World War, photographers were appointed to the Australian War Records Section (AWRS), organised by Charles Bean. These photographers, including Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins, were charged with taking photographs that would document the service of Australians in the war for both the historical record of the war and for propaganda.

The Second World War saw a broadening of the institutions responsible for taking and managing the photographic record of war. The Military History and Information Section - by 1942 known as the Military History Section (MHS) - was established by John Treloar, who had been a member of AWRS during the First World War and had directed the Australian War Memorial in the years before the Second World War. Photographers appointed with MHS were serving soldiers and officers, whose work was to form part of the official history of the war.

Photographers also covered the war for the Department of Information (DOI), a government organisation that had been established in late 1939 to manage propaganda for the war effort. Many of Australia’s most well-known war photographers - including Damien Parer, George Silk and Frank Hurley - covered the war for DOI, which ceased in 1945. A third organisation was established by the Australian Army in early 1942: photographers working for the army’s Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) took photographs as both historical records and as propaganda.

The official photographers included in the exhibition, Focus, worked for MHS and DPR. Alan Queale and Allan Cuthbert covered the activities of Australians involved in the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan for MHS, which ceased operations in 1955. Official photographers covering the war in Korea - Phillip Hobson, Harold Dunkley - worked for DPR, as did Mike Coleridge and John Fairley who covered the Vietnam War.


Photojournalists have covered Australia’s involvement in conflict since the Korean War, where photographers such as Melbourne Age’s Allan Lambert and the Sun’s Lloyd Brown provided readers of their newspapers with regular pictorial accounts of the war.

The “golden age” for Australian photojournalists on the battlefield - as elsewhere - was the Vietnam War. Events in Vietnam were covered by large numbers of photojournalists. Many photojournalists were affiliated with a particular news agency: the Australian photographer Denis Gibbons, for example, was affiliated with Fairfax Press and then United Press International; the British photojournalist Tim Page also took photographs for UPI. Agency and freelance photographers capitalised on the financial and professional opportunities offered by the war. As the Australian freelancer Graham McInerney noted, every job promised “a potential Pulitzer Prize picture”.

Furthermore, certainly compared to official photographers, press photographers enjoyed certain freedom in the field. The armed forces were eager to maximise available public relations opportunities. This freedom was also a consequence of the nature of the conflict itself. The relatively low intensity of a war in which front lines were rarely clearly defined and engagements typically involved small groups of troops meant that the presence of the media could not be centralised and contained, but instead needed to match the fluid and dispersed nature of the fighting. However, commanders became sceptical of photojournalists, and many held that in many instances - Nick Ut’s photograph of the napalm-burnt girl Kim Phuc running down a highway; Eddie Adams’ photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing at point-blank range the Viet Cong prisoner Captain Nguyen Van Lem; Gabriel Carpay’s photographs of the interrogation of Viet Cong prisoner To Thi Nau - their work contributed to anti-war sentiment.

In the decades following the Vietnam War, the access of photojournalists to combat was restricted as commanders attempted to assume control of public accounts of conflict. Even so, and in spite of difficulties they face financing their work, a growing band of Australian photojournalists has emerged since the early 1990s. Photographers such as David Dare Parker and Ben Bohane have developed reputations based on their coverage of regional conflicts; others, most notably Stephen Dupont, have high international profiles for their coverage of the “war on terror”.

Soldier photographers

The soldier photographer has been a regular feature of Australian war photography since the South African War (1899-1902), when soldiers such as the Tasmanian Vernon Smith, New South Welshman Arthur Cosgrove, and Herbert Appleby of the Victorian Mounted Rifles, and the Victorian nurse Ada May Thomson, recorded their service with Pocket Kodak or Bullet Kodak (”hits the mark every time”) cameras. The soldier photographer was also active during part of the First World War: the Australian photographic record of the Gallipoli campaign is largely constructed of images taken privately by soldiers.

Two of the photographers featured in the exhibition, Focus, were soldiers who operated their own cameras. In 1949, Ian Robertson became his battalion’s (3RAR) photographer in Japan when the unit’s first photographer, Phillip Hobson, joined the army’s Directorate of Public Relations. While in Japan, Robertson was also made a member of the battalion’s sniper section. When he arrived in Korea in 1950, Robertson was simultaneously a marksman and a photographer. His photographic work offers an extraordinary view of the life of 3RAR in Korea between September 1950 and August 1951.

Many soldiers also kept their own photographic record of the Vietnam War. It has been claimed that almost every serviceman or woman at one stage owned cameras. The cheap and easy-to-use Kodak Instamatic, first released in 1963, was the soldier’s camera of choice. The Tasmanian Major Andy Mattay carefully documented his 1970-71 tour with 7RAR, using more sophisticated cameras than the Instamatic. Mattay may have taken as many as 5,000 photographs on the tour, which would make him among the most prolific of all Australian photographers to cover the war - indeed anywar. These photographs were intended as a response to the “quip and grin” work of public relations photographers.

Mattay was an exceptional photographer and was able to process and print his own work at the ATF base. His prints provide a tangible record of 7RAR’s 1970-71 tour, one impossible to come by in negatives or slides alone. The fact that he printed each of his photographs himself makes his work particularly useful, since the point of view, from shooting through to printing, is that of the photographer. The photographer’s intention is often more directly expressed in a print than in a negative alone: in a print, the image as it appears on the negative is often cropped, while aspects of it might also be manipulated in the darkroom for emphasis or otherwise. Most of Mattay’s Vietnam photographs entered the Memorial’s collection in 2006.