Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The photographer as documentarian: the amateur's eye

Although there was a lively trade with negatives and prints at the front, the majority of amateur photographers were not thinking of a specific recipient but instead photographed what seemed to them to be of documentary value. They recorded what appeared to reflect their experiences of the war. In this way, their photographs contradicted the official image of the war as published in newspapers and magazines.

In contrast to those photographs that were taken with the intention of creating propaganda and glorifying war, amateurs were attracted by other motifs. Photographs were primarily taken to remind the soldiers of the war, recording what constituted 'their war'. With an obsession for detail, they documented scenes of everyday life, violence and destruction. They were guided by a reliance on the documentary power of the camera and the hope of making individual experiences visible. At the same time, the permanent threat and mental stress made them keenly aware of the transience of life. Thus each photograph was also a sign of survival that was sent home in the form of a picture postcard.

In addition, the soldiers wanted to communicate a picture of life at the front to those at home. Brief comments ("Here you can see…") written on the backs of the photos are evidence of the hope that the objects depicted could speak for themselves and help to bridge the distance to the family members far away. Since many of the experiences at the front could not be associated with comparable experiences in civilian life, the assumed authenticity of the photograph was intended to represent the unspeakable and give it a voice. Conversely, photos from home were intended to document and communicate the children growing up, the well-being of the family members and the like. Photography was meant to communicate between the two worlds – the front and home – and to build a communicative bridge between the two worlds of experience.

The pictorial world of the soldier snapshooters comprised above all two groups of motifs. Firstly, they were a record of the new and the unknown while at the same time giving it a coating of 'normality'. The camera showed Christmas being celebrated, soldiers cooking and cleaning, setting up positions and building a base. War landscapes, equipment and weapons were photographed and preserved for the future. Photographing the soldiers' everyday life in the usual alternation of work and leisure created an analogy to everyday life at home.

Secondly, the amateur photographic eye captured the violence and threats to which they were permanently exposed. Off the beaten track of the established habits of seeing, the soldiers documented attacks on the civilian population, showed death and brutality, mass firing squads and executions unrestrained by any taboo or censorship. Looking through the camera created distance, putting the photographing soldier on the other side, making them into victors. These unofficial images were rarely seen in the illustrated press and only rarely found their way into the archives.

Translation: David Wright


Holzer, Anton (Hrsg.): Mit der Kamera bewaffnet. Krieg und Fotografie, Marburg 2003Li

Hüppauf, Bernd: Fotografie im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Spilker, Rolf/Ulrich, Bernd (Hrsg.): Der Tod als Maschinist. Der industrialisierte Krieg 1914–1918. Eine Ausstellung des Museums Industriekultur Osnabrück im Rahmen des Jubiläums „350 Jahre Westfälischer Friede“ 17. Mai – 23. August 1998, Osnabrück 1998, 108-123

Starl, Timm: Knipser. Die Bildgeschichte der privaten Fotografie in Deutschland und Österreich 1880 bis 1980, München 1995

Contents related to this chapter


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Experiences of violence

    While some of the front soldiers experienced the “storm of steel” as the apotheosis of their own masculinity, most soldiers suffered on account of their physical and/or mental injuries. The destructiveness of modern mechanical warfare and the mental strain caused by the days and weeks in the trenches, the constant noise of the artillery and the sight of seriously wounded and mutilated comrades produced not only an army of war wounded but also masses of soldiers suffering from war neurosis.

  • Object

    Relationships during the war

    The subject of this propaganda postcard of a soldier setting off for war and swearing to be faithful to his loved ones recalls the separation brought about by war. Millions of men were sent to the front and separated from their families and wives. The war marked an important break in many partnerships, families and friendships. The soldiers serving far from home found themselves in a completely new social environment with new superiors and comrades. They made new friendships and entered into new relationships.

  • Object

    Personal war testimonies

    For a long time, the First World War was narrated only from the point of view of prominent personalities or generals. The way in which the people of the Austro‑Hungarian Monarchy experienced and survived it remained unheard. Personal documents like this diary give us new and diverse insights into how individuals experienced, understood and felt about the war.

  • Object

    Depicting the war

    The photo by Alexander Exax shows a scene in the trenches in Galicia in 1915. The title “im Feuer” [“under fire”] gives the impression that the picture has been taken in the middle of the action. Dynamic photos like this were typical of the pictorial iconography of the First World War. The illustrated weeklies were among the most important distribution media, but there were others: exhibitions and posters, picture postcards and cinemas collaborated with private picture agencies and the official propaganda to provide a visual depiction of the war.

  • Object

    The foreigner, the adversary, the enemy!

    To popularise the greeting “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England”] and the response “Er strafe es” [“May He do so”] it was printed on posters, badges and postcards. The idea was to promote patriotism and hatred of England. Right after the start of the war, animosity and mutual attributions of blame by the two sides were manifest. Xenophobia was officially encouraged as a sign of patriotism. This singling out and denigration of the enemy was designed to strengthen solidarity and justify the country’s own war policy.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?