Trench with Skeletal Remains

European, WWI
Photographic postcard
3 ⅞ × 5 ⅜ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.323

Post Mortem Photography and World War I

Spurred by the media’s publication of increasingly graphic news, the First World War pushed death to the forefront of the public’s mind. Postcards were cheap to mass produce and also served a utilitarian function, circulating visual propaganda alongside the written messages they carried. Most of the postcards in this collection were never used, demonstrating their importance solely as collectible images in addition to their initial correspondence purpose. Depending on the subject, images of wartime death generally served one of two functions: the death of an enemy promoted a country’s strength, while the death of an ally instilled shock and anger. Without knowing the nationality of either of these postcards, it is difficult to tell if they were meant to prompt celebration or mourning. What is certain is that each of these images emphasize the violent horror of death without any of the personal care that had previously been characteristic of post mortem photography. The loss of life is no longer portrayed with respect, dignity, or individuality, but instead serves as subject matter for public motivation.

Should images of death be used to underline political messages?