A philhellene’s images of war

From its early days, photography’s potential for documentation made it the most applicable medium for war coverage. From the time of the Crimean War and through WWII, photographers were sent to the front to report back home with the objectivity and immediacy inherent in photography. In reality, what they captured was just a partial view of reality, a view that was often directed by the government or the people who commissioned the photo-expeditions or was colored by political ideology and national causes. This is also the case with the pictures that the Swiss photographer Henri-Paul Boissonnas took of the Asia Minor expedition in 1921. These are the subject of «Henri-Paul Boissonnas: Asia Minor 1921,» a comprehensive photo album jointly published by the Benaki Museum (to which Boissonnas’s heirs have donated a portion of the photographer’s archives) and the Foundation of the Hellenic World to celebrate 80 years since the Asia Minor disaster. The book provides a vital compilation of the artist’s large body of work. Its principle merit, however, lies in uncovering the reality behind Boissonnas’s images and in explaining the historical and ideological context in which the pictures were taken. The three essays included in the book (the one by Irini Boudouri, curator of the Benaki’s Photo Archive deals more directly with the photos) also help to do this. Completing a full survey of Boissonnas’s particular project, the book also includes a number of watercolors that Boissonnas painted during his itinerary in Asia Minor (he was more inclined to painting than photography) and Greece, as well as the letters he sent to his fiancée during the expedition. Boissonnas’s Asia Minor project was sponsored by the Greek goverment and was actually one of a set of similar sponsored expeditions that the Greek State initiated in order to advance its national causes and foster a positive image of Greece abroad. Boissonnas’s philhellenism proved helpful; his father Fred Boissonnas had already traveled to Greece in the early part of the century in order to photograph the snow-covered Mount Parnassus on a commission from a Scottish lord, George Napier, and had approached the Greek goverment with a proposal for promoting the country’s culture and life through photography. Several years later, the Balkan wars provided the occasion for a photographic project on the areas of Epirus and Macedonia. The album became part of the «L’Image de la Grece» series which provided a panorama of Greece from its ancient past to the present. It was really under the goverment of Eleftherios Venizelos (after his re-election in 1915) that the «propaganda» of Greece abroad became more systematic. Venizelos was also the first to fully adopt Fred Boissonnas’s proposal. In 1918 the Greek goverment and Boissonnas (as well as his two sons Edmond and Henri-Paul) signed a contract agreeing to organize a photo exhibition on Greece for the Peace Conference that would take place in Paris the following year. Part of the agreement was the publication of a series of photo albums on Smyrna, Thrace, Constantinople and the Hellenism of Asia Minor which were to be published in the following few years. When Henri-Paul Boissonnas traveled to Greece, Venizelos was no longer in power but the idea of cultural politics that he had cultivated was still resonant. The project lasted for about five months in which Henri-Paul Boissonnas followed the Greek troops on both the southern and northern fronts. His images were printed in the Swiss press with no more than a month’s delay from when they were taken. Contrary to what might one expect of war images, most of the photos that Boissonnas took contain no violence or atrocities – there is only one picture of a deceased man – and rarely show war in action. This rather tamed picture of the war applies to most photographic projects of the Asia Minor expedition (in contrast to those taken of the Balkan wars) and is largely attributed to specific directions given by the Greek goverment. Although Boissonnas was not affected by the work as much as other officially appointed photographers were, the fact that he was forbidden to work on the front lines placed limits on his subject matter. But what must also have contributed toward the absence of drama in the pictures was Boissonnas’s ethnographic and historically inclined view of Greece, as well as the formal aesthetic he had as more of a painter than a photographer. This combination of factors extended Boissonnas’s repertoire to the natural landscape, ancient ruins and rural life. It also led to war images that are more about the troops resting, tending the wounded or war preparations than the action itself. Sensing the lack of potential for taking pictures from a different angle, Boissonnas finally quit the project and returned to Smyrna before heading back home. The photographs he had taken were seen across Europe and served to put the Greek goverment’s national aims across. Today, they resonate with the cultural politics of the time and the idealist vision of Greece held by a European philhellene.

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