Layers of Censorship
World War I was the first war in which photography was widespread and actively used in support of the war effort. Photography had three important impacts on the war experience: (1) in allowing for aerial reconnaissance photography, (2) in allowing for propaganda material from official war photographers, but also (3) in allowing soldiers to take and collect personal photographs. For the first time, many men came to the front with novel personal cameras, ready to capture their reality and moments that were meaningful for them. Despite an official ban, many soldiers shot pictures whenever it felt personally relevant, collections of which are very valuable as historical artifacts today. Many senior officers did not like this at all, and what was allowed to be sent home through letters was very often censored. Similarly, the photographs taken by official war photographers were often under intense scrutiny.
As civilian photographers were banned, the expanding press industry continually pressured the military for more coverage. Governments quickly realized that this new interest in photography from both the press and the public would have to be dealt with quickly—institutions to manage the new flux in photography had to be created. In August of 1914, the British War Propaganda Office created a new department dedicated solely to official photography. What was let out to the public was tightly controlled, with a strict ban on anything that could lower morale at home—images of combat, death, destruction, and disapproval. Although early in the war effort this was to protect information and morale, governments quickly realized that photography could be used to shape public perception in a new way. Therefore, the photographs released were often starkly different than the lived experiences of actual soldiers on the ground.
This censorship, along with the difficulty of navigating war zones, led many photographers to stage images. It is also important to note that many official photographers were made lieutenants and were subject to military discipline; as a result, many photographers did not view themselves as truly independent recorders and witnesses to the war, an identity which is reflected in the content produced. Along with initial censorship, however, many governments had additional channels; for the British, judgements were also made by the overarching War Office Press Bureau before distribution. Whenever the US joined the war, the American war correspondents generally had greater freedom to observe than official correspondence for other Allied armies. However, all images taken still had to be reviewed by military authorities (the Army’s Board of Control as well as the American Military Intelligence Service) with the same level of scrutiny. The strictness of censorship varied over the course of the war; for example, after major Allied loss in Gallipoli, government censorship in Allied countries increased greatly.
After government review, approved images were distributed to news sources. These news sources had creative control over the final arrangement of these images, which could potentially affect the viewer’s interpretation. This would of course be useful to publishers looking to sell as much as possible, as perhaps a more dramatic read would sell more copies. However, there were internal limits to these edits in the form of self-censorship, in which news sources accommodated the requests of the military to not publish certain information and act in a way that supported the military. This cooperation could be due to either patriotism (and a genuine want to support the war cause) or fear of government intervention in publication. In this way, many American new sources refrained from criticism once the country entered the war, following a standard similarly followed in other Allied countries.
The layers of censorship therefore break down like this:
An official war photographer takes an image; however, this photographer was specifically selected for this role and his products are influenced by his identity as well as his limited ability to navigate the war zone. The image is captioned with the context the photographer deems is necessary for understanding.
The image also passes through secondary government authorities (such as the British War Office Press Bureau and the American Military Intelligence Service) to undergo another round of censorship.
In addition to creative control, most news sources also followed a standard of self-censorship for publications—news sources accommodated the requests of the military to not publish certain information due to either patriotism or fear.
Military authorities (such as the British War Propaganda Office and the American Army’s Board of Control) reviews the received image, and it is determined if it acts against the military’s interest. The accompanying caption written by the photographer is expanded upon or edited to fit existing wartime narratives.
The image is received by a news source (such as the American publisher Collier & Sons). Editors have creative control over how the images are arranged (which can affect interpretation), and captions may be slightly edited to fit style or add drama.
As you can see, any final news product the public received (for example, a copy of Collier’s) underwent much censorship during WWI. The vision of war provided was incredibly manufactured, and did much to advance military agendas—especially in places like the US, where combat was happening an ocean away.
Also see the analysis page for American Propaganda & Exceptionalism.
Demm, Eberhard. “Censorship.” 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 29 March 2017, encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/censorship.
Johnson, Sarah. “Capturing Memories: Photography in WWI.” Remembering WWI, rememberingwwi.villanova.edu/photography/.
“Military Censorship.” Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/stars-and-stripes/articles-and-essays/behind-the-scenes/military-censorship/.
Patrick, Caitlin. “The Great War: Photography on the Western Front.” Photography and International Conflict, www.ucd.ie/photoconflict/histories/wwiphotography/.
Roberts, Hilary. “Photography.” 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 8 October 2014, encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/photography.
Saunders, Beth. “World War I Photographs in Special Collections.” My UMBC, 13 November 2018, my3.my.umbc.edu/groups/library/posts/80337.