Heroic War Photographers from Past and Present
War photographers are undoubtedly the bravest photographers in the industry. In order to be a war photographer, you have to be willing to put your life on the line. This list of famous war photographers discusses some of the most heroic, skilled, and memorable photographers of history and today.
War photojournalism is undoubtedly not for the faint of heart. Whether it is the threat of being injured in armed conflict, arrested, or the danger of kidnapping, many war photographers and camera operators have braved this front to bring us important information. And ultimately, tell the stories of those who might be otherwise largely forgotten.
Famous War Photographers From History
War photography makes an impressionable impact on our lives. If you think of war, whether it’s World War II or the Vietnam War. You will most likely think of a corresponding image ingrained in your memory.
Since the beginnings of the camera, photographers have risked their lives to capture photos from the front lines. There has been at least one brave person there in major conflicts throughout history to document it. Many of whom lost their lives in the process.
Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869)
Remembered as one of the first war photographers, Roger Fenton was a British photographer and a founding member of the Royal Photographic Society. He was fascinated with the then-new technology, mainly photographing architecture, portraiture, and landscapes.
In 1855, he traveled to document the Crimean War. At a time when photographic equipment was large and difficult to carry.
The British government supported Fenton’s photographic adventure. And Fenton gained huge success with his photographs of the battlegrounds, camps, and portraits of the soldiers and staff.
Due to the accessibility of the camera, his images included much less “action” than today’s battle photographs. However, Fenton still managed to capture the essence and tension of war. His work is a starting point for today’s war photography.
Mathew Brady (1822-1896)
Mathew Brady, one of the most famous photographers of the 19th century, was one of the first photographers to bring the realities of war to the public.
When the American Civil War began, Brady was able to capture images through his mobile studio and darkroom. He employed at least 17 other photographers to head out to battles to capture the civil war in later days. While Brady directed and organized the photographers from afar.
Unfortunately, Brady was not the best at documenting who took the photos or their location. But historians have been able to piece together much of his civil war collection.
Brady’s extensive photography portfolio now resides in the National Archives and the Library of Congress. There are also a great book detailing the life and photographs of the legend.
Alexander Gardner (1821- 1882)
In the same era as Brady, Alexander Gardner was another of the founding fathers of war photography.
Most notably, Gardner was the first to photograph the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest days in American history. Some of Alexander Gardner’s most famous war photographs are President Lincoln on the Battlefield of Antietam (1862) and Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg (1863).
As it was near impossible to capture moving images at the time, Gardner set out to photograph the stillness of the victims of war, documenting the corpses and fatalities on the battlefield.
Gardner also photographed portraits of soldiers in case they never returned to their loved ones.
Ernest Brooks (1876- 1957)
Ernest Brooks was the first official photographer to be appointed by the British Military in the First World War. Of the most famous images we have from World War One, many are shot by Brooks. Including the iconic image of a silhouetted figure standing next to a cross on a hill. His aim with the silhouette pictures was to pay tribute to the anonymous heroes of battle.
Brroks produced an enormous body of work while working for the British Military. Over one-tenth of all photographs from the war were taken by him. Brooks was able to provide in-depth and behind-the-scenes images from the front lines at a time when people were desperate for information.
Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971)
The legacy of Margaret Bourke White is one that is not easily forgotten.
She was the first female war correspondent and the first woman to work in the combat zones during World War II. Blazing the trail for many female photographers to come.
Margaret Bourke White also traveled to the soviet union. And was the only foreign photographer allowed in Moscow when the German forces invaded.
With a career that spanned the globe. She accompanied the US troops in North Africa, Italy, and Germany and documented fierce battles in great detail. She also documented Gandhi’s fight for India, unrest in South Africa, and the Korean war.
In her book, Portrait of Myself, Margaret wrote, “To understand another human being, you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what he is.”
There is a great biopic film about the photographer, with Farrah Fawcet starring as the Bourke-White.
Lee Miller (1907- 1977)
The life of Lee Miller is an unusual and inspiring story of a New York City fashion model turned war photographer.
Growing tired of being a model in New York, Miller flew to Paris to study with surrealist photographer Man Ray with whom she later entered into a relationship. Her life was a series of high-class adventures.
Learning studio photography and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau until the Second World War began. That was when she decided to try her hand at war photography. And VOGUE hired her to cover the Blitz.
She was later accredited with the U.S. Army as a correspondent for Condé Nast Publications. And captured images of the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps.
Miller’s work is seen as a form of both journalism and art, as she aimed to tell stories through the documentation of historical events. She is now known as being the woman who “saved Vogue” through the war.
Her ability to blend beauty with tragedy makes Miller an exceptional war photographer who paved the way for many women in the industry.
Robert Capa (1913- 1954)
When we say ‘famous war photographer’, the name Robert Capa is most likely the first to come to mind.
Robert Capa was one of the most notable photographers, mainly recognized for his famous Spanish Civil War images. He was known for always being up close to the action and getting the shots that nobody else could. Including the heart-stopping, famous image ‘Death of a Loyalist Militiaman‘. In which, Capa caught the moment a soldier was fatally struck by a bullet.
Capa covered five different wars, including the First Indochina War and the Second Sino-Japanese war. As well as World War II across Europe, he paired with Henri Cartier-Bresson to form the highly successful photography agency Magnum pictures. Which still operates today, employing several photojournalists on this list.
In 1954 a land mine killed the photographer while taking images of the French Indochina War.
Gerda Taro (1920- 1937)
Often noted as the first female war photographer, Gerda Taro was a German- Jewish war photographer and committed antifascist. Taro dedicated her life to bringing the news to the people.
Taro most famously covered the Spanish Civil War and was often accompanied by her companion and professional partner, Robert Capa.
Like Capa, Taro also lost her life while taking pictures on the front line, making her the first female photographer to die in battle. Although her photographic collection was small, cut short by her early death. Her images left a memorable mark.
W. Eugene Smith (1918- 1978)
W. Eugene Smith was an incredibly brave photographer who repeatedly risked his life for his photos.
Smith spent his career capturing gritty and powerful photographs all over the globe. Including following the American troops to Japan. Here he was to photograph the American troops and Japanese Prisoners of war. While on assignment in Japan, he was injured badly and spent years recuperating with the aid of multiple surgeries.
Smith later returned to Japan to document ‘Miniamata disease’, photographing the brutal effects of mercury poisoning caused by local factories.
He was incredibly dedicated to his work and was highly aware of the brutality of life. His images aimed to highlight that brutality and provide a voice for its victims.
Recently a film was made about Smith’s time in Japan, focusing on his documentary work in Minimata. Starring Johnny Depp, this harrowing movie will be another one to add to your list.
Philip Jones Griffiths (1936 –2008)
Philip Jones Griffiths was a welsh photojournalist. Most well known for his coverage of the Vietnam War.
His harrowing images of battle felt deeply personal and intimate. His photographs aimed to show the true cost of the conflict in Vietnam. And depict humanity on both sides of the battlefield.
His work was influential in helping to shape Americans’ views on the Vietnam war at the time.
After living in Asia for some time, Jones-Griffiths returned to America to take up the role of president of Magnum Photos.
Nick Ut (1951)
As effective war journalism does, this image struck emotions with viewers all over the world as the reality of Vietnam hit “home” for many western countries.
The photographer spent many years documenting the atrocities in his home country. He was severely injured three times before moving to the United States.
Ut has since retired from active photojournalism. However, he still continues to photograph for himself.
Sir Don McCullin (1959)
McCullin aimed to give a voice to society’s improvised and rejected souls. He captured intimate photographs of the victims of war to show the harsh effect that conflict has on humanity.
McCullin has worked all over the world, photographing victims of battle and the Aids conflict. His work in Vietnam and the Northern Ireland Conflict is highly regarded. His gritty, detailed, and personal style makes his images almost instantly recognizable.
The photojournalist mainly works with landscape images now. In 2020 it was announced that Angelina Jolie would make a biopic about his life and career.
Famous War Photographers Today
Although photography has dramatically changed since its beginnings, the bravery of war photographers throughout the years has remained unchanged. In this list, we look at the modern-day photographers breaking glass ceilings and bringing the most important events to our screens.
Susan Meielas is an American photographer, part of the Magnum group. She has covered many conflicts around the globe, focusing on human rights, cultural identity issues, and the sex trade.
Meielas has discussed the advantages of being a woman in a zone of conflict: “in Central America, I could approach people because they weren’t afraid of women as they were fearful of men. In these highly militarized environments, a woman was perceived as less threatening.”
Denis Sinyakov is a freelance photographer and cinematographer who works mainly in Russia and Ukraine. The photographer has an impressive portfolio, giving attention to some of our time’s most underrepresented and under-photographed conflicts.
Since 2014, Sinyakov has photographed Crimea, the Russian-annexed territory of Ukraine. In his work, he aims to show how the Crimean Tatars live under the pressure of the government. He also photographed a military conflict in South Ossetia and the US Forces of Afghanistan.
Sinyakov was also in custody for many months because he was on board with Greenpeace activists on an Arctic Sunrise ship who were protesting oil production in the arctic.
His still images are highly influenced by his cinematography skills, with careful attention to lighting and composition. This style makes him an excellent storyteller.
Lynsey Addario is an American photojournalist whose work often focuses on conflict and human rights issues.
Addario often takes a deeper look into the world’s most vulnerable people. Including taking photographs of women in traditional societies. Addario said she used photography to ‘dispel stereotypes or misconceptions; of presenting the counterintuitive‘.
After working all throughout India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for the New York Times, she traveled to Libya.
Addario had been in Libya for just over two weeks when she and three other journalists were kidnapped and held at ransom. Captured by Gaddafi’s troops, she was beaten and groped repeatedly before being set free.
She continues to photograph today.
Eman Helal is an award-winning Egyptian photojournalist who has worked across Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. As well as covering the Egyptian uprising in 2011.
Eman has covered photographed many important stories over her career. And a sense of power can be felt in every image she takes. She is one of the few Arab-Muslim Female photographers in the industry. And is an inspiration for many women wanting to break into photography.
Best known for his impactful and moving work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moises Saman is considered “one of the leading conflict photographers of his generation” and is a full member of Magnum Photos.
Saman’s ability to use light in an effective way adds to his ability to tell meaningful stories. His work is internationally recognized and has won multiple awards throughout his career. Each of his images draws you in in a way that is unusual for combat photography.
Nikon ambassador, National Geographic published, winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes, Carol Guzy’s work is deserving of the accolades.
Guzy has photographed conflicts all over the globe, making her name with The Washington Post in the late 80s. The photographer’s career has gone from strength to strength. And with every year, it seems her connection to her subjects becomes stronger. Her images of conflict are intimate, humanizing, and ultimately heartbreaking.
In 1990, Guzy was also the first woman to receive the Newspaper Photographer of the Year Award.
Shahidul Alam is an award-winning Bangladeshi photojournalist who has devoted his life to social activism and documentary.
Working mainly in Bangladesh, his moving images show a different side of humanity in a state of conflict. And because of this, Alam has won many awards throughout his career.
He’s also been a judge of the World Press Photo competition on four occasions and was the first Asian chair of its judging panel. Additionally, Time Magazine selected him as one of the ‘persons of the year’.
Carolyn Cole is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.
Currently working for the LA Times, Cole’s work has taken her to Liberia, Afghanistan, and Haiti, in which she captured some of the most defining images of her career. Not only do her images capture unseen moments of conflict. But she also pays special attention to the innocent citizens. Who are sometimes quite literally caught in the crossfire.
Joao Silva is undoubtedly one of the bravest and most committed war photographers in the industry today. The Portuguese-born south African photographer was a part of the infamous Bang-Bang club. A group of photographers who documented South Africa’s troubles until Nelson Mandela’s release in 1994.
Silva then went on to photograph conflicts all over the globe, paying special attention to Africa and the Middle East. The photographer was candid about his career and often talked about the horrors of working in Afghanistan and feeling helpless as he watched people die.
While on patrol with US soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Silva stepped on a landmine and lost both of his lower legs.
In a Guardian article, he said: “As the soldiers dragged me away from the kill zone, I took these pictures. When people around me have been hurt or killed, I’ve recorded it. I had to keep working. The soldiers were yelling for the medics. I knew my legs had gone, so I called my wife on the satellite phone and told her not to worry.”
After many years of rehabilitation, Silva still works as a photographer today.
Winner of multiple world press photo awards and arguably one of the best war photographers alive today. James Nachtwey is a name to remember.
Photographs by Nachtwey have been published all over the globe. His style is emblematic of traditional war photographers like Capa, often being in the right place at the right time. In front of the action. Capturing the moments most others would miss.
His portrait work is also not to be overlooked, giving special attention to conflict, disease, and famine victims.
Conclusion – War Photography is not for the faint of heart.
The photographs that war photographers capture are not only necessary for us to learn more about the world we live in today, but should also be recognized as being of great historical importance for generations to come.
There are so many inspirational photographers to pay attention to. Many are currently risking their lives to bring us important photos, and many have already lost their lives in the process.
If you would like to learn more, take a look at our list of photography movies featuring documentaries and biopics of these famous war photographers.