Wartime Issue 30 - Witnesses to war

By Katherine McMahon.

Some images of war are captured in an instant and beamed across the world. Others are crafted more thoughtfully, over hours, days, months, even years. The photographer and the artist work at different paces, but to the same end: fixing in time the reality of the significant moment.

Since 1999, Australian forces have had a presence in the conflict zones of East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Solomon Islands. Whether fighting wars or keeping the peace, the Australian servicemen and women involved in these conflicts have done much that deserves to be recorded and interpreted. This is the role of the Australian War Memorial’s official artists and photographers.


Stephen Dupont’s photograph of Solomon Islanders from the local village of Sisifiu, on Malaita Island, is representative of the documentary approach that he took to his commission. Many of his photographs record the interaction between Australians and the local people. An important part of the work of official photographers is to gather information to accompany each image. Together the photograph and caption become an important historical record; giving context to what would otherwise be “an instant plucked out of reality”. This photograph shows Australian peacekeepers distributing leaflets that promote the first 100 days of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.  P04225.229

A new travelling exhibition created by the Australian War Memorial, Witness to war: official art & photography 1999–2003, brings together the work of the Memorial’s most recent official artists and photographers: Wendy Sharpe, Rick Amor, Peter Churcher and Lewis Miller (official artists); and David Dare Parker and Stephen Dupont (official photographers). It is an exhibition that reveals not only the arresting images these men and women have created, but also their own stories. Travelling to East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Solomon Islands, they crafted bodies of work that document Australia’s role in these regions and reflect their own experiences and interpretations. They are our witnesses to war.

The Memorial’s art and photography collection dates back to the establishment of the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) in 1917. (The AWRS would later evolve into the Australian War Memorial.) It was then that the first concerted effort to collect images of war was undertaken. The Memorial’s founder, Charles Bean, was convinced that no record of Australia’s role in war would be complete without the perspectives brought by the artist and the photographer. A complete historical record needed to draw on every available tool: the journalist’s hasty notes, an officer’s war diaries, a soldier’s memoirs, the artist’s eyes, the photographer’s lens. Each brought its own qualities, and together they wove a complex tapestry to be studied, debated, and valued for centuries to come.


During his commission to Iraq, Lewis Miller found working in the high temperatures difficult: his gouache paints dried before he could use them and the gum in his solid blocks of watercolour melted. Travelling with the highly mobile Australian units, he sometimes had only minutes to record people and scenes. As a result, many of Miller’s works have elements of immediacy and spontaneity, such as his watercolour of an RAAF F/A-18. With a few fluid brushstrokes he captured the aircraft taking off from Al Udeid air base in Qatar.  ART92065

Bean’s vision became the basis for the Memorial’s official art and photography schemes. The official art scheme is one of the longest running and most significant in the history of Australian art. Since 1917, almost 60 artists have been appointed under the scheme; among them some of Australia’s most prominent artists, including Will Dyson, Arthur Streeton, Stella Bowen, and Nora Heysen. Similarly, the official photography scheme dates back to the First World War, when photographers such as Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins created an extensive photographic record. Such was the importance of this first official photographic record that when the 12 volumes of the official history of the First World War were published, the last volume was dedicated to these alone.

In the 90 years both schemes have operated, official artists and photographers have documented the breadth of Australia’s involvement in two world wars, in Korea and Vietnam, and more recently in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Solomon Islands. The schemes have given many prominent Australian artists and photographers the opportunity to travel to conflict zones often closed to civilians and the media, and to work under challenging and, at times, extreme conditions. While appointed and funded by the Memorial, they travel with the Australian Defence Force, which provides the access, accommodation, transport, and importantly, the subject matter.

During his commission as official artist to Afghanistan, Peter Churcher spent three weeks aboard RAN ships in the Persian Gulf. His images range from the claustrophobic engine room to the view from the ship’s bow, from naval boarding parties bound for smugglers’ vessels to moments of quiet reflection and sleep. He produced several studied portraits of the people he encountered on board: “Jack” Daniels was drawn towards the end of his time at sea.  ART91787

Between 1999 and 2003, four artists and two photographers were appointed under these schemes. Artists Rick Amor and Wendy Sharpe were sent to cover the Interfet peacekeeping operation in East Timor; they were followed by Peter Churcher, who was appointed to document Australia’s role in Afghanistan. Artist Lewis Miller and photojournalist David Dare Parker were appointed to document Australia’s presence in Iraq in 2003, and in the same year photographer Stephen Dupont was appointed to cover Australia’s peacekeeping mission to Solomon Islands. These commissions have resulted in a comprehensive collection of diverse images that are both immediate and measured, personal and documentary


Katherine McMahon, Council Secretary at the Australian War Memorial, co-curated (with Claire Baddeley)
Witness to war: official art & photography 1999–2003.