War Primers

David Evans

Kriegsfibel by Bertolt Brecht was first published in East Berlin in 1955. The book is a collection of what Brecht called ‘photo-epigrams’: four line verses combined with photographs, mainly dealing with World War Two, clipped from newspapers and magazines whilst he was living in exile in Scandinavia and the United States. An English-language version called War Primer was translated and edited by Brecht scholar John Willett, and published in 1998 by Libris, a small firm based in North London specialising in German literature. Very recently, collaborative photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin acquired a hundred copies of the Libris version and customised them, overlaying Brecht’s press images with their own selection of colour images, downloaded from the Internet and related to the so-called "War on Terror". Their War Primer 2 was published as a limited edition book in 2011, and as a free app, with supplementary texts, in 2012, both by MACK, London. [1]


On 19 June 1944, the American magazine Life published a picture story called ‘Beachheads of Normandy: the fateful battle for Europe is joined by sea and air.’ [2] The story covers the D-Day landings and an introductory note identifies Robert Capa as the Life photographer who went in with the first wave of American troops and supplied the imagery for the seven-page feature. One now very famous image is captioned:

Crawling through the water, U.S. soldier edges toward the beach. Excitement of moment made Photographer Capa move his camera and blur the picture. The Germans were still pouring machine-gun and shellfire down on the beach, apparently from concrete pillboxes.

Brecht used this particular image for one of his photo-epigrams. The photograph was taken from Life, one can assume, but the epigrammatic caption is profoundly different from the one above. Brecht writes:

A summer day was dawning near Cherbourg

A man from Maine came crawling up the sand

Supposedly against men from the RuhrIn fact against the men of Stalingrad.

The poem is clearly visible in the new version by Broomberg and Chanarin, but their selected image – a digitally distorted portrait from a G.I.’s private blog - covers most of Capa’s photograph.

Within each context, the photograph takes on a different meaning. In Life, ‘Crawling through water’ is merely one element in a long photo-story. Of particular interest is the caption that gives equal billing to the soldier and the photographer. Indeed Capa could be considered top of the bill since he is the only one specifically named. But both face the same risks with the landing, confronting intense German firepower. The danger and excitement is confirmed by the blur of the photograph, conventionally considered a technical fault, but foregrounded in the caption as a certificate of authenticity. We now know that the degradation was also caused by incompetent processing. Nevertheless, ‘Crawling through water’ still exemplifies the war photographer as participant-observer, risking life and limb to generate images for the illustrated press that give readers the vicarious experience of being in a war zone.

Brecht’s alternative caption for Capa’s D-Day photograph suggests that, while the official purpose of the Normandy landings was to repulse Nazi Germany, unofficially, they were intended to stop the Soviet Union's advances into Western Europe, although they were supposedly an ally of the United States. Such a view was by no means the eccentric musing of a Soviet sympathiser, safely residing in California. Rather, it was to become the ‘line’ taught to generations of school children in the Soviet Union and its satellites throughout the Cold War era. From this perspective, the Nazi scourge was more-or-less single handedly crushed by the Red Army, pushing back German troops from Soviet territory at the end of 1942, liberating much of Eastern Europe by the end of 1944, and much of Central Europe – including Vienna, Prague and Berlin – by early 1945. Hence the Normandy landings in 1944 were interpreted as a deliberately late ‘second front’, primarily responding to a perceived Soviet threat.

On this occasion, Brecht’s epigram has no relation to the new image selected by Broomberg and Chanarin. Instead their main interest is in two types of distortion: the digital distortion probably caused by a Photoshop filter in the case of the anonymous downloaded image from an American soldier’s blog; and the chemical distortion that resulted from Capa's negatives being accidentally overcooked. These are suggestive links, but they are dependent on the viewer recognising the D-Day photograph barely visible underneath the new addition, and knowing the now legendary story about how Capa’s precious roll of film was almost rendered useless by casual processing in a London darkroom.


Capa’s ‘Crawling through water’ (1944) is rivaled by Joe Rosenthal’s ‘Taking of Iwo Jima’ (1945) as among the most reproduced war photographs of all time. Yet, it is almost certain that both have been viewed less than the various still and moving representations of the Twin Towers attacks in New York on September 11th, 2001, reproduced globally in various forms of print media and broadcast by television and the Internet. 

Broomberg and Chanarin paste a downloaded colour image of one of the smoking towers and aeroplane onto a photo-epigram by Brecht that combines an aerial photograph of a burning oilfield with the following poem:

A cloud of smoke told us that they were here.

They were the sons of fire, not of light.

They came from where? They came out of the darkness.

Where did they go? Into eternal night.

In this case their selected image has a more obvious and dynamic relationship with Brecht’s work than the example already discussed. Two-thirds of Brecht’s chosen press photograph is still visible, and the imposed image has been carefully cut and pasted to hint at one explosion emanating from the tower. In addition, Brecht’s poem about surprise attacks from the air in World War Two has some affinities with the actions of Atta and his accomplices more than half a century later.

Their updated photo-epigram can be usefully compared with a work by Hans-Peter Feldmann called '9/12 Front Page'(2001). Feldmann created an instant archive of one hundred newspapers from around the world that foregrounded the Twin Towers attacks of the previous day. '9/12 Front Page' was shown in the exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, held at the International Center of Photography, New York, in 2008, and is discussed in the related publication by the exhibition’s curator, Okwui Enwezor :

As the circulation of these images continues unabated, it is fair to ask what their status is beyond their initial documentary purpose as evidence of two incomprehensible acts of violence. Have the images become emblematic more of the aftermath than of the event itself? How does one revisit, not the event itself, but its aftermath, its mediatised manifestation? For many, to say more with images of September 11 is already to say too much, to lapse into cheap vulgarity. [3]

Enwezor’s answers that Feldmann’s ‘provocation’ is far from the ‘anomic archive’ that critic Benjamin Buchloh associates with Gerhard Richter's Atlas. Rather, there is a subtle play between art and non-art, intervention and holding back, that encourages the viewer to mull over the ways in which editors around the world grapple with their scripto-visual conventions to rapidly represent extraordinary events with no obvious precedent. [4]

Feldmann’s archive is about how the events in Manhattan of September 11th were represented around the globe the next day. (Looking at the twenty front covers reproduced in the catalogue of Archive Fever, I am particularly struck by how more-or-less interchangeable images are accompanied by headlines whose descriptions range in degrees of severity from ‘attack’, via ‘war’, to ‘apocalypse’.) In contrast, the supplement to Brecht’s photo-epigram by Broomberg and Chanarin introduces a temporal dimension. (Re-examining the work, I started thinking about the history of war-planes. After World War Two, redundant bombers were re-functioned to service nascent mass tourism. Ingeniously, terrifyingly, it could be argued, civilian aircraft returned to their original function in the September attacks.)


In April 2004, The New Yorker and a CBS news programme presented amateur photographs from a gaol in Iraq that appeared to show American troops abusing prisoners. Like the imagery of the September attacks, this material was quickly disseminated around the world in many different formats. Subsequent convictions were made after the Criminal Investigation Command of the American army examined around 2,000 still images and 93 video files that mainly depicted ‘suspected detainee abuse’.

The most widely reproduced image from Abu Ghraib gaol shows a hooded prisoner on a makeshift plinth, apparently wired to receive electric shocks. On the front cover of one issue of The Economist it was accompanied by a headline calling for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s defence secretary from 2001 to 2006. It was also combined with the rhetorical question ‘Is this your freedom?’, and widely used as a placard on anti-war demonstrations. More arcanely, four members of the dissident group Retort, based in the Bay area of San Francisco, created a frontispiece for their neo-Situationist polemic Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London and New York: Verso, 2005) by pairing the ‘wired Christ’ with a quotation from John Milton:

And reassembling our afflicted Powers

Consult how we may henceforth most offend

Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,

How overcome this dire calamity,

What reinforcements we may gain from Hope,

If not what resolution from despare?

When I asked them about this unusual frontispiece, they answered that it registers the main claim of their book – that the current conjuncture seems to involve ‘a seemingly brute return to the seventeenth-century wars of religion familiar to Milton, twinned with an intensified deployment of the apparatus of the production of appearances.’ According to Retort, the United Sates was doubly defeated ‘at the level of spectacle’: the recorded events of 9/11 confirmed its vulnerability; and the Abu Ghraib documentation undermined its ideological claim to be the global guardian of ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’. [5]

The ‘wired Christ’ is also used by Broomberg and Chanarin, but very differently to the above examples. Their starting point is a photo-epigram in War Primer that is unusually humorous. Brecht selects a photograph of an oddly shaped carrot sent to newspaper editors by a reader in Philadelphia with the following covering letter:


Responding to the current craze, nature has produced a pin-up vegetable. These shapely, satiny legs don’t belong to some miniature Petty girl, but came from my victory garden. It is actually a twin-rooted carrot. When it was washed and de-whiskered I thought it looked quite fetching.

John Bretherick  Philadelphia, Pa.

The letter references George Petty, a famous pin-up artist whose ‘Petty Girls’ were used as centrefold spreads by Esquire and often inspired decorations on American war-planes in World War Two. Brecht adds mockingly: 

So you may have what you’ve been pining for

This sexy carrot might bring satisfaction.

A pin-up for your tent on distant shores!

They say such pictures rouse the dead to action!

In Broomberg and Chanarin’s version, the reader’s letter is covered and the ‘sexy carrot’ and ‘wired Christ’ are combined to create a hybrid ‘pin-up’. Tasteless, perhaps, but also drawing attention to the crude sexual fantasies informing many of the Abu Ghraib photographs. This dimension is brilliantly analysed by art historian Stephen F. Eisenman in The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion Books, 2007).  ‘What if the sexualised scenarios …rather than rendering the images of abuse and torture more horrific, made them appear less so?’ he asks. His answer is that the ‘wired Christ’ and related photographs failed to arouse mass indignation in the United Sates because they are marked by what Aby Warburg termed the ‘Hellenistic pathos formula’ – representations of ‘introverted oppression, eroticised chastisement or rationalised torture’ that Eisenman thinks are still pervasive in popular culture. [6]


In 2009, the Barbican Art Gallery showed two exhibitions dealing with photography and war. Upstairs were Robert Capa (1913-1954) and Gerda Taro (1910-1937), two photographers whose coverage of war in the mid-twentieth century was usually viewed as picture stories in magazines like Life, Picture Post, Regards and Vu. Downstairs was On the Subject of War, featuring contemporary photographers Paul Chan, Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren and An-My Lê whose diverse outlets, including art galleries, clearly register the demise of the illustrated press. In addition, the curators provided a study room with a little library of relevant publications, including Afflicted Powers by Retort, plus Internet access to blogs and websites.

Brecht was not mentioned in any of the publicity, but he would have probably approved of the spatial separation of the two elements of the exhibition and the study room, all designed to encourage unhurried, critical reflection on modern warfare and its changing representation. In my review of this two-part exhibition for Source, I  stressed how the astute juxtaposition of historic and contemporary material also encouraged consideration of different political contexts. Most obviously, Capa and Taro were part of a Communist-inspired Popular Front against Fascism that appeared vindicated by 1945. In contrast, On the Subject of War includes no contemporary figure who endorses the official view that the so-called War on Terror is a defence of Western civilization against Islamo-fascists from the East. And conversely, it should be noted, no contributor characterised Bush or Rumsfeld, say, as neo-Nazis. [7]

War Primer 2 opens with a publicity shot of Rumsfeld imposed on a portrait of Adolf Hitler and throughout there is a danger of the merging of elements from different eras that is at odds with Brecht’s attempt to identify the specificity of World War Two. But Broomberg and Chanarin are not attempting to simply update Brecht. War Primer 2 should be treated as something like one of Brecht’s Lehrstücke: a pedagogical handbook that encourages skepticism about the photographs that talk to us. 


  1. Bertolt Brecht, Kriegsfibel, (East) Berlin: Eulenspiegel Verlag, 1955, edited by Ruth Berlau; Bertolt Brecht, War Primer, London: Libris, 1998, translated and edited by John Willett; Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2, London: MACK, 2012. The app has supplementary texts and can be downloaded at  back
  2. See Chapter 6, ‘D-Day, June 6, 1944’ in Richard Whelan, This is War! Robert Capa at work, New York: International Center of Photography / Göttingen: Steidl, 2007, pp. 206-251. back
  3. Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, New York: International Center of Photography/Göttingen: Steidl, 2008, p. 29. back
  4. Enwezor, p. 30. back
  5. Retort (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, London and New York: Verso, 2005; David Evans, ‘The New 1914 That Confronts Us : An Interview with Retort’, Afterimage 34: 4 (January and February 2007), pp. 17-20. back
  6. Stephen F. Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), pp. 9, 73. back
  7. David Evans, ‘The Camera Goes to War’, Source 57 (Winter 2008), p. 58. back


Image references

  1. Courtesy the artists and Izabella Scott, MACK back
  2. The liberation of most of Europe by the Red Army 1942-1945. back
  3. Courtesy the artists and Izabella Scott, MACK back
  4. Courtesy the artists and Izabella Scott, MACK back