Righting the Record on Photos of Wartime Europe

The Tanganyika Expeditionary Force in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the East African Campaign of World War I. Imperial War Museum., CC BY-NC

A war in Europe instantly creates parallels with world wars for people in the UK and other European countries. This connection represents what most people know and learn about conflict on the continent.

Media coverage and response to the war in Ukraine also conjured up familiar images of World War II, particularly those of bombed buildings, armed soldiers and civilians, and children clinging to their parents.

Our automatic response to conflict images is often biased. We seek familiarity, ways to deal with the horrors unfolding before our eyes, to answer our instinctive question: does it affect us?

Invoking images of the world wars arguably strengthens our response because national ideas about the world wars are so deeply rooted in our historical knowledge. Yet the wars in Syria and elsewhere are more easily perceived by most Europeans as distant or foreign.

However, many battles in the World War involving European powers were fought outside of Europe, in places like East Africa and the Middle East. And of course, other wars before these have taken place all over the world. This led us to ask ourselves: is the war in Ukraine different because it is taking place in Eastern Europe and undoubtedly invokes our knowledge and recognizable images of the world wars?

These questions are central to our new project, Early Conflict Photography (1890-1918) and Visual Artificial Intelligence (EyCon). In this project, we explore our westernized view of world wars and how this directly relates to the current inaccessibility of historical photographs and their contexts. To understand and correct this imbalance, EyCon uses artificial intelligence (AI) to improve our knowledge of often overlooked war images from the early conflict era, 1890-1918.

By capturing these graphic images and integrating them into our accessible history, we can begin to reclaim overshadowed but globally shared experiences of war. But we can also ask ourselves what effect our limited and Eurocentric knowledge of world history has on our reaction to images of modern conflict.

As part of Eycon, thousands of photographs of colonial warfare and pre-1914 conflicts, such as the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan War, as well as African and Asian battlefields of World War I , will be presented in the project database. However, it is not as simple as downloading them.

Recording history

While a photograph can say a thousand words, those words aren’t necessarily the right ones. Images of conflict and war zones create further preservation and digitization issues, as they may represent sensitive material and there are often more than two sides to the story.

This means that the interpretation of an image can become a matter of perspective. Without accurate information about photos such as when and where they were taken (known as metadata) or ways to search for images in archives, even complete records of our recent global conflicts could be lost.

Metadata accuracy is one of the biggest issues in image preservation. While this data helps discover images with keywords, the information that accompanies an image record can become problematic if the description and information is limited, outdated, biased, or simply wrong.

When historical images are digitized, much of the metadata is simply copied from notes on the original source held in the archive from which they came, if there are any notes at all. Another archive with a copy of the same image may have different ratings, so the metadata attached to the digital recording may not always match.

This is a major issue for archivists, researchers and public users, as the accuracy of the record is integral to how photography is used, cataloged and interpreted. So when differences arise, how do we know which notes, if any, are correct?

Photograph of Italian troops in Libya in October 1911. Service Historique de la Défense, Author provided (no reuse)

This question is central to the EyCon project. By applying an AI capable of analyzing images to archival collections of first-era conflict imagery, the project aims to collate image metadata and identify inconsistencies or instances where more accurate metadata needs to be identified. applied. This is particularly important when the same images are held in different archival collections.

two different stories

Take this image of three soldiers from October 1917 during the First World War. Simply put, it’s a photograph of male soldiers on a battlefield and a wounded man. The photograph is held by two French archives, La Contemporaine and République Française Images Défense.

“French wounded evacuated to the rear”, October 23, 1917, Mont de Laffaux. Julien Gueslin/ The Contemporary

The Images Défense file describes the photo as “A Senegalese tirailleur is wounded at the ‘Balcon’, a German position captured by the Allies near Soupir”. Sigh “). However, La Contemporaine presents the following description, handwritten under the image: “French wounded evacuated to the rear”.

These different descriptions, listing the wounded soldier as “Senegalese” and “French,” highlight not only the discrepancies between the metadata of historical images, but also the very real potential for colonial troops to be erased from European history. Without the right context and further investigation, the real stories of these people can easily disappear.

While EyCon specifically studies early conflict imagery, the project’s goals – to develop visual AI techniques to search, collect and enhance photo archive metadata – can help inform future projects with similar goals. For now, by bringing together global collections of early conflict images, identifying new photographs, and collating contexts and stories, EyCon’s open-access database hopes to correct and realign our heavily Westernized view and Eurocentric world at war.


About the Author: Katherine Aske is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication and Media at Loughborough University. Lise Jaillant is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Digital Humanities at Loughborough University. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. This article was originally published on The conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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