Photography was a global phenomenon by the mid-19th century. Invented by Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839, it developed into a mass medium of communication by the end of the century. The development of photographic technology went hand in hand with its rising popularity. The early daguerreotype cameras, based on silver plate technology, resulted in the invention of snapshot roll film cameras for professional and amateur photographers. Most famously the Kodak camera, which was developed in 1888, became a very popular device at the beginning of the war.

The First World War was a turning point in the history of photography; it was the first war to be documented meticulously in photographs. Official military and newspaper photographers, but also ordinary soldiers and civilians, created millions of images recording events at and behind all the fronts and in the occupied territories. In the absence of written records or memories of war participants, such as colonial soldiers, these largely neglected photographs become even more important today.

During the First World War, photography became a medium for communicating war events and propaganda to the masses in all belligerent and neutral countries. Each country had its own policy – or often no clear policy – regarding photographs taken at the front. On the whole, at the start of the war, military authorities aimed to prevent professional photographers taking pictures for fear of espionage. Photographs were subject to strict censorship and control, so hugely popular illustrated newspapers such as the Illustrierte Kriegszeitung in Germany or the Illustrated War News in Britain had to rely on either private photographs sent in by soldiers or nurses, or on old stock images and artistic representations.

Very quickly, the authorities realised the enormous importance of ‘authentic’ photographs for propaganda purposes. From around 1915, armies of the belligerent states included photographic sections, such as the Section photographique de l'Armée Française established in 1915, the Austro-Hungarian Kriegspressequartier created in 1915, or the German Bild-und Filmamt founded in 1917. These sections organised, produced, and distributed photography on the ‘home front’ and also in neutral and belligerent countries. For many new nations, like Canada or Australia, these photographs from the war became important features in the development of a national iconography and their national identity.

Prisoners of war became a very popular motif in all belligerent states. Images of prisoners usually showed healthy inmates doing sports or receiving letter, all within the confines of a perfectly run and organised camp. These images served as propaganda to counter rumours of poor treatment in captivity. In the German Halfmoon camp, photographs of the mosque built for Muslim prisoners of war symbolised the good treatment of its captives, visually emphasising the Ottoman-German alliance. Picture postcards communicated this message of Muslim-German friendship to a wider audience.

At the same time artists, ethnologists, and linguists visited prisoner-of-war camps with scrapbooks, grammophones, or cameras to capture the 'types of enemies' in captivity. Capturing 'the other' in the space of a camp for scientific purposes fuelled debates on race and ethnicity. It refined the use of photography for anthropological research, making 'racial difference' not only visible but verifying it through photographic practices.

With the 'Kodak revolution', private soldiers and military commanders captured their individual war experiences in private snapshots, often offering different perspectives to official imagery. While official photographers aimed to capture the war effort by showing columns of marching soldiers, heavy equipment, and – mostly unsuccessfully – fighting scenes, most private pictures focused on scenes in the trenches reflecting the everyday life of most men. Other private pictures document unusual encounters with civilians in occupied territories or with colonial soldiers depicted as the 'exotic other'.

Meant for private purposes, individual albums are increasingly attracting attention in academic research. They add another dimension to visual commemoration of the First World War, which is often defined by black-and white images produced for official purposes.

Larissa Schmid