The System of Telling the Visual Story in Wartime America

Traditionally, the camera has been seen as a medium for capturing truth (Snyder 2014). There is merit to the saying, “The camera doesn’t lie,” as it records the scene in front of it. However, the truth of the photograph is complicated in a system that includes factors such as censorship and Photoshop. Since the American Civil War, photography has played a role in the war story by creating a visual narrative. These war pictures are presented to or hidden from an audience through modes of dissemination.

According to Melanie Mitchell, Professor of Computer Science at Portland State University, the study of complex systems is as follows:

…an interdisciplinary field of research that seeks to explain how large numbers of relatively simple entities organize themselves, without the benefit of any central controller, into a collective whole that creates patterns, uses information, and, in some cases, evolves and learns. The word complex comes from the Latin root plectere: to weave, entwine. In complex systems, many simple parts are irreducibly entwined, and the field of complexity is itself an entwining of many different fields. (Mitchell 2009)

The creation of the visual narrative of war is a complex system. As Raymond Williams writes in "From Medium to Social Practice," the medium, although important, is not autonomous (Williams 1977). The medium, in our case photography, depends on other components within a system to create a mediated representation of reality. The interplay between photographic technologies, modes of dissemination, and censorship from the Civil War to the current War on Terror shape the story presented to the American public. These components, and even smaller components within them, are inextricably linked and dependent on one another in the creation of the visual narrative of armed conflicts.

The following three entwined essays deal with the complexity of the visual war narrative through an intensive study of types of cameras, specific war photographs, and the means in which these photographs are presented to American civilians. Each essay stands alone, but can also be read in conjunction with each other as well as other modules within this website such as technologies, events, and visualization


Leslie Michaels