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14 September 2016

Jay Winter's Photographing War: the Kodak revolution

Yale historian Jay Winter presented a provocative lecture on the Kodak revolution of World War I, and the vast trail of unofficial photography it left behind. In this article Monash University graduate student Sam Prendergast discusses the concept of dignity in death, and the questions raised by what the soldiers chose to photograph. [Scroll to the bottom for a full recording of Jay Winter's lecture.]


Jay Winter speaks at the Matheson event
Few 20th century events have been so heavily memorialised as WWI. In Australia, the process of commemoration starts early. Every April, Australian primary school children draw crayon depictions of Gallipoli. They group uniformed men in wide-brimmed hats and spend their red ink on poppies. The official iconography of war makes its way through generations; as we move further from the event we become increasingly reliant on what we have learned to remember.


This is the context in which Jay Winter spoke about the ‘Kodak revolution’. While official war photographers captured a censored record of WWI, soldiers left a vast trail of unofficial photographs. They did so with the help of pocket-sized Kodak cameras. In moments of boredom, action, significance, or reflection, individuals recorded their experiences of war. Few of the images have made their way to the textbooks, but that might change; as archives of the Great War grow, the photographs move out of family photo albums and into the public domain.


For historians, the significance of the ‘Kodak revolution’ is realised in the archives. As Jay Winter stressed throughout his talk, the collected Kodak photos hold some democratic potential: soldiers’ photographs can counter prevailing assumptions about the nature of WWI. In one of Winter’s selected videos, we see men piling corpses on a truck in a fashion that evokes the Holocaust. The image of men stacking bodies is haunting in a way that statistics are not. In images, we lose the accuracy of numbers but we gain a sense of what it means to deal with death on a mass scale. Unofficial photos do a good job of portraying the gruesome practicalities of war.

World War I items from the Rare Books Collection were on show
The soldiers’ photos tell us less about what they wanted to remember than about what they wanted to record. As Jay Winter guided us through a collection of images, I found myself wondering why these amateur photographers thought to pull out their cameras at particular points. This was especially so when Winter called our attention to a set of photos that belonged to a doctor. At war, the man had captured images of people in their dying moments. Some of the photos seemed curated: a head tilted, unnaturally; a body placed in position. In one image, an injured soldier laid in the dirt, his face in pain. The photographer had titled the image, ‘A dying Serb’. When Winter showed us the photo he asked: is there no dignity, even in death?


It was a provocative question, designed to make us question the photographer’s motivations. The assumption, on Winter’s part, was that the photographer, a soldier, acted unethically when he captured an image of another man dying. I was not so sure. The value of the Kodak photos is that they show us how soldiers’ experienced the war. Without one man’s photo, there would be no record of the other man’s death. I wondered what the dying man might have thought about having his image captured at that moment. Perhaps he, like Winter, wondered why the photographer would strip him of all dignity in his final moments. Perhaps he felt relief that someone was bothering to capture an honest portrayal of his death at war. Or maybe he was just consumed with whatever consumes a person when they’re lying, near-death, in the dirt.


Either way, the photo tells us about something about the reality of the man’s death, and there must be some dignity in having that experience recorded and remembered – if not for the photographed man, then perhaps for the many others who died similar deaths, or for those who returned home, having witnessed friends and strangers die. Because of the Kodak archive, the man is, at least, remembered as something other than a number. In capturing images, the amateur photographers left us with a democratic scaffolding around which to construct meaning. That one man could photograph another, as he died, reveals something about the battle front; it is at once tethered to the home front and, yet, removed from the home front’s norms.


War strips people of their dignity long before they die; the question is whether or not the archive can restore it. The ‘Kodak revolution’ created a wealth of source material, but the value of an archive is realised through its use, not through its mere existence. As more ‘democratic’ records of war make their way into historians’ hands, we face new questions about how to use the materials – how to read them, select them, and present them. Perhaps there is rarely dignity in archives: the respectable, legitimised trash cans of the past. But there might be some dignity in using them to restore a lopsided version of history. As a graduate student, Winter’s lecture raised unexpected questions about the ethics of trawling through documents and guessing at the motivations of people who are long-dead.




A video recording of the lecture is available, with permission from Jay Winter.

Sam Pendergast is a Masters candidate in the History Department, Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on the question of how historians can overcome the limitations of long-archived oral histories in order to bring forth "unheard" narratives. Currently, she's working with a collection of post-WWII Soviet displacement narratives; in 1950s Munich, US scholars created translated transcripts of their non-recorded interviews with Soviet DPs.


Follow Sam on Twitter:  @samprendergast_. 



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