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Guest Blog: Capturing Today's Wars in Photos

by Anne Bothwell 14 Apr 2011 2:33 PM

“XXI: Conflicts in a New Century” features work by today’s best war photographers. The show’s co-curator Charles Dee Mitchell shares thoughts about the history of documenting conflict.


Head Gear. Used by a soldier receiving treatment for PTSD. By Lisa Barnard.

Guest blogger Charles Dee Mitchell is a freelance writer on the arts and Board Chairman of WordSpace. He blogs at

The Crimean War (1853 – 1856) was the first conflict covered by photojournalists. Before the Crimea, wars were memorialized by statues and monuments, and what day-by-day reporting was done came through printed accounts of battles and their outcomes, often weeks after the events. Today when we see Robert Fenton’s photographs from the Crimea they seem remote and static, formal portraits of generals on horseback and distant soldiers in their camps. The cumbersome technology Fenton had to work with, along with a 19th century sense of propriety of what was acceptable for public consumption, dictated the sorts of scenes he could capture on film. Photojournalism was still almost a century away from the time when Robert Capa, sill possibly the greatest war photographer of all time, could state the dictum, “If your pictures are not good enough, you are not getting close enough.”

The twentieth century was the most violent century in history, with over 100 million combat deaths. Photojournalists covered every major war as well as such devastating regional conflicts as those in Rwanda and Bosnia. The introduction of the lightweight Leica camera brought a new immediacy to the coverage, and wire services and digital transmission meant that both photographs and video were delivered almost instantly to viewers worldwide. Twenty-four-hour news channels meant that the coverage was non-stop.

Clashes between Jewish Settlers and policemen during evacuation of Amona 2007. By Natan Dvir.

Cynthia Mulcahy and I, as writers, curators, and collectors of war imagery, have discussed an exhibition of this sort for the past four or five years. With the opportunity to use the newly established Oak Cliff Cultural Center as a venue we settled on the present format, XXI: Conflicts in a New Century. The amount of material available is somewhat disheartening, because the first ten years of this century has seen no decline in international conflicts. And even while we have assembled a body of work by many of the definitive photographers working today, we know that technology continues to change. How many “definitive” images from current international conflicts will be culled from the thousands of images captured on cell phones and broadcast over the internet minutes after they occur.

But there will always be an important role for the professional photojournalist, dedicated to both capturing the moment and doing the investigative work necessary to give it context. XXI: Conflicts in a New Century includes work by many of the best of these photographers working today. Some have put themselves on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others have covered the effects of the war on the home front and the devastating casualties among returning soldiers.

Barbie Girl, Beirut 2006. By Rania Matar.

On May 11, as part of the exhibition, there will be a free screening of the Academy Award nominated documentary Restrepo at the Texas Theater, with filmmaker Tim Hetherington in attendance. At a later date to be announced, we will hold a panel discussion that includes Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson, two photographers in the exhibition who now live in Dallas.

Cynthia and I also want to thank the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs and the generous donations of private individuals for making this exhibition possible. If teachers or other groups want to arrange special tours of XXI: Conflicts in a New Century, they may contact the Oak Cliff Cultural Center. The exhibition runs April 15 – June 4.