Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Photography as a weapon: reconnaissance, surveying, documentation

Technical achievements at the beginning of the 20th century allowed the use of aerial photography as a strategic element in warfare. The aircraft became a tool for seeing, the camera a weapon. Aerial reconnaissance created new space for warfare, providing a previously unobtainable view over the war zones.

It was in the First World War that aerial photography was first used intensively by the military as a source of information. Decades previously, there had already been attempts to make visual recordings from a great height in order to have a wider strategic overview. Draughtsmen were sent up in tethered balloons, cameras attached to balloons and even doves were fitted with recording devices. But it was only a few years before the First World War, on 23 October 1911, that the first reconnaissance aircraft equipped with cameras and measuring devices took off in Italy to investigate the road from Tripoli to Azizia from the air during the war against the Ottoman Empire.

Photography was then used systematically in the First World War. Important developments of previous years, such as shorter shutter times, more sensitive lenses and refined photographic reproduction techniques meant that detailed information from afar could be recorded. The combination of flight and photography extended the range of the visible. Enemy troops could be investigated using modern photography, photos of weapons systems were used for training soldiers and ground photography supported the artillery. The reconnaissance and survey photos were taken by specialists recruited from the Imperial and Royal Military Geographical Institute.

As intelligence sources, however, the aerial photographs first needed to be interpreted – the pictures supplied were too abstract and out of focus. By using indexical symbols, codes were developed to allow clear knowledge to be read out of the pictures. Thus the information was reduced to a few topographical characteristics: a triangle meant a depot, a circle with a dot a mortar position. In this way, the General Staff succeeded in overcoming the distortions of the medium and combining the illustrations to show the course of entire fronts. The maps obtained in this way were distributed throughout the entire command hierarchy.

The value of the aerial photographs lay above all in the fact that information could be obtained about military activity over large distances. This became necessary because military action had disappeared from eyelevel as a result of aerial and trench warfare, new weapon technology and changes in the way war was fought. Using aerial photography brought war back into view.

Translation: David Wright


Holzer, Anton: Die andere Front. Fotografie und Propaganda im Ersten Weltkrieg, Darmstadt 2007

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

Paul, Gerhard: Bilder des Krieges – Krieg der Bilder. Die Visualisierung des modernen Krieges, München 2004

Sekula, Allan: Das instrumentalisierte Bild. Streichen im Krieg, in: Fotogeschichte. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Ästhetik der Fotografie (1992), 45/46, 55-75

Siegert, Bernhard: Luftwaffe Fotografie. Luftkrieg als Bildverarbeitungssystem 1911-1921, in: Fotogeschichte. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Ästhetik der Fotografie (1992), 45/46, 41-54

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    The industrialised war

    The First World War called for an enormous amount of material. The armies had to be equipped and fed. The battles would not have been possible without the manufacture on an industrial scale of arms and other strategic products. Only through the total mobilisation of all available resources was it possible to keep the huge war machinery going.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Mechanical warfare

    In the years and decades before the First World War there were many innovations in arms technology with the result that the entire war machinery and with it the strategic and tactical considerations had to be fundamentally rethought. The artillery, with its powerful arsenal of guns, mortars and howitzers, epitomised the dominance of “fire power”. It was the prototype of industrialised mechanical and mass warfare and responsible for a larger number of casualties than any other type of weapon.

  • 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.