When you think of our American military history, what images stand out? Perhaps it is the black and white Joe Rosenthal photo of U.S. Marines raising a flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. Or maybe it is Nick Ut’s shot of “Napalm Girl.” These iconic images have both inspired hope as well as shaken us to our very core. They have provided a window into the events that helped shape the course of our nation. Unlike the great civilian combat journalists listed above, a military photographer’s dichotomy is to switch between artist and soldier at the blink of an eye. They must decide when to grab the camera and when to grab the gun. In spite of the potential harm, military photographers are there to tell the story and go through great risks to get the shot. These men and women capture the American soldier’s story, the history and legacy of the world as it happens.
Known as the “father of photojournalism,” Mathew Brady, a daguerreotypist and portraitist, conceived an audacious plan to document the events of the Civil War pictorially. Since then, technology advancements have etched out a place in every branch of the military up until current conflicts utilizing satellite, and, even now, drone photography. Throughout the Veterans History Project (VHP) collections, we see the evolution of military photographers from the tools they used to the roles they played.
Three o’clock p.m. on December 7, 1941. This was the exact moment that Charles R. Restifo realized his fate. As the radio announced the destruction the Japanese bombers had wreaked on Pearl Harbor, Restifo knew his next step would be to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Assuring his mother that enlisting offered him his best chance to be placed in the safest unit, Restifo was pleased to be assigned to United States Army Signal Corps photographic group, where he trained with the likes of Hollywood actor William Holden and other notable men. True to his word to his mother, Restifo’s Army career began away from the battlefield within his unit filming training videos – noting how strong the heavy camera had made him.
It wasn’t long until Restifo was shipped off to the South Pacific to document and depict what the radio had been reporting. Utilizing a Speed Graphic handheld camera for much of his assignment, Restifo recorded intense action in the Pacific Theater, such as kamikaze pilots and suicide ships attacking his and neighboring ships. Restifo survived a number of treacherous situations while never having to fire a weapon.
Documenting much of General Douglas MacArthur’s travels, Restifo snapped shots of Tokyo Rose after she was arrested, the first shots of Hiroshima’s destruction after the atomic bombing, and even the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Many of his photos were sent on for news clippings. He later used some of them in his unpublished autobiography.
A photographer until the end, Restifo closes his autobiography advising those who read it to not dwell on the negatives and to travel as much as possible. You might be surprised to see what develops.
Join us next week for the second installment of VHP’s “Shooting War. Framing History” series.
In the meantime, we invite you to check out more military photographer stories presented in our online exhibit “Framing the Shot.”