Contact: Photographs and the modern experience of war
1946-1952 British Commonwealth Occupation Force
In February 1946, Australian troops began to arrive at Kure, a port city on the Japanese island of Honshu, as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF).The postwar occupation of Japan represented an effort to overlay the institutions of a modern Western democracy on a defeated and demoralised country. It played a role in both the demilitarisation of the country and, “by precept and example,” the instillation of “principles of democracy and justice”. BCOF - and the thousands of Australian families who from 1947 settled in the new township of Niji Mura [Rainbow Village], built on a disused airstrip at Kure - represented the economic, social, and cultural model towards which Japan was heading. The idea was that the country’s militarism would literally be overwritten by Western democratic values and practices.
Official photographers from the Military History Section and the army’s and air force’s Public Relations directorates were sent to Japan to document this project. Public relations photographers such as Harold Dunkley and Phillip Hobson took photographs of the work undertaken by Australians in Japan so that it could be publicised in Australia, and assisted visiting press representatives in gaining access to Australians in the country. Military History Section photographers such as Alan Cuthbert and Allan Queale were present throughout the period of the occupation, and attempted to maintain an “impartial historical record” of the activities undertaken by the Australians.
Korean War (1950-1953)
When the first Australian troops began to arrive on the Korean peninsula in September 1950 following a United Nations (UN) request for support to resist the communist invasion of the Republic of Korea, the institutions charged with taking official Australian photographs were in the process of reconfiguration. The Military History Section was in the process of winding down, and just photographer, Claude Holzheimer, remained in the region.
There were fewer public relations photographers in the field. The conflict was covered by existing, Kure-based BCOF public relations photographers, who made sporadic quick visits to Korea. Phillip Hobson, Harold Dunkley, and Douglas Lee were among the Directorate of Public Relations photographers sent to Korea. But with just a handful of photographers spending short periods of time at the front, coverage was sketchy.The conflict saw the rise of the photojournalist. Many leading British and American photojournalists covered the war, producing along the way some of their most important work. Among these was the documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who was appointed an official UN war correspondent and covered a counter-insurgency guerrilla campaign in North Korea during 1952. Picture Post’s Bert Hardy, Life magazine’s Carl Mydans and David Douglas Duncan also consolidated their reputations covering the war. Australian press photographers accompanied Australian troops in Korea, especially during the war’s first year. Photographers such as the Melbourne Age’s Allan Lambert and the Sun’s Lloyd Brown worked in close contact with members of the army’s own public relations unit.
Vietnam War (1962-1972)
The Vietnam War - sometimes referred to as the “television war” and “history’s most reported war” - was thoroughly documented, and the photograph was central to this activity. The war is also often described as a turning-point in terms of media-military relations, with an evident distance emerging between the media’s assertion of the public’s “right to know” and military concerns for controlling public accounts of the war and securing public support for it. In many instances, these debates centred around the photograph: many of history’s most contentious war photographs were taken during the conflict.
Vietnam War photography was certainly complex and multi-faceted. The Australian military services maintained their own public relations units, which operated alongside photographers performing strategic work, soldiers freely using their own cameras, and civilian photographers working as freelancers or attached to one of the many media outlets or photographic agencies for whom the war was business. A highly organised, international media-machine was, certainly compared to earlier wars, relatively free to move about the battleground and generated a vast amount of photographic activity.
Peacekeeping and contemporary conflict
In the decades since the Vietnam War, the character of Australian war photography and the Australian war photographer has, as elsewhere, undergone a dramatic shift. The nature of war photography has been altered by the emergence of digital technology, new media, and less distinct demarcations between art and photography.
The opportunities for Australian war photographers have also shifted. As elsewhere, the post-Vietnam period saw a tightening up of the access granted civilian photographers to warzones. In the years following the Vietnam War many people felt that the photograph (and, in turn, the photographer) had somehow influenced public sentiment during the war. This was particularly so in the United States, where commanders and government officials felt that, given free rein in the field, the media - and especially photographers - had effectively discredited the military establishment, and therefore had discredited the government’s account of the war. Even worse, it was felt that the media had made a significant contribution to the widespread public criticism of the war and the way it was fought.
This has also occured in Australia, and photographers have had to adjust to both restricted access to battlegrounds alongside the significant changes that have occured in photographic technology itself, notably the rise of digital technology and its widespread use means that anyone can take and transmit photographs.