200 shots: Damien Parer, George Silk, and the Australians at war in New Guinea

Neil McDonald & Peter Brune,
200 shots: Damien Parer, George Silk, and the Australians at war in New Guinea.
St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1998.
ISBN 1 86448 541 8
197 pp.

Uploaded 29 May 1998

The ‘Foreword’ to this book is provided by Damien Parer himself. In a 1943 article he explained to the people back home what it was like to be on the front-line, and what the role of a cameraman was in reporting this: the cameraman `must look at these men with the open-eyed surprise of a child first seeing the world, and comprehend their greatness as they themselves cannot.’ The authors have assembled a collection of images (`200 shots’) demonstrating what this meant in practice.

Neil McDonald has previously written a book and curated an exhibition on Damien Parer, and Peter Brune has written three books on the Papuan campaigns: the present work appears to be a seamless collaboration, using the skills and knowledge of both authors to provide a fascinating insight into the world of the war cameraman.

It is, at the same time, a very partisan story of the campaigns that these cameramen covered. The skill and bravery of Australian soldiers and their commanders is praised: they won battles that were barely recognised as victories, and they retreated under impossible conditions, with minimum loss of life, yet were accused of cowardice by commanders who did not bother to find out at first hand what the conditions were really like. So, there are several villains in this story: not just the Japanese enemy, but also the American allies (neither commanders like MacArthur, nor the insufficiently-trained American infantry come out well) and some of the Australian high command (who misread strategic withdrawals as defeats, replacing, implicitly in disgrace, field commanders who were highly respected by the troops).

Such arguments have been rehearsed before, but what makes this book unique is its reliance on images as evidence. The images are supported by a text largely drawn from the cameramen’s field notes and from diaries and other first-hand accounts, and these have been cross-referenced with official histories, so that minor errors of fact (names, locations, times) can be picked up and a more accurate version provided.

The images are sometimes still photographs taken by either Silk or Parer, and even sometimes by other cameramen, such as those employed by the Military History Section. Sometimes the images are frame enlargements from cinematography, usually that of Parer, but sometimes that of the Military History Section cinematographers. Where it is known, the technical information is given about each image: the camera and camera setting used and the film stock. The original caption is provided, with corrections (where necessary) in brackets.

In a book which is just as dependent on images as text, the striking design and good quality paper are important: even the end-papers and the contents page are photographs. No apologies are made when an image is blurred or grainy: that was the nature of the product.

Some of the images are, in themselves, stunning. Shot 158, for instance, is beautifully composed, with a line of men wading through a river towards the camera, the line snaking from the top left corner of the frame to the bottom right, balanced by two outriders on the flanks, and with a single soldier in the water in the top right corner. The image is so clear that the faces of the men in the far background can be clearly seen – they would be recognisable to anyone who knew them. They are, at once, individuals, and members of the group. Their weariness can be seen in the facial expressions and the postures, but there is no sign of weakness or indecision. So the image manages to be both a work of art, and visual evidence of the moment that it documents.

Some photographs are not so carefully composed: they capture movement and drama – the puff of smoke of a bullet, the blur as a man moves too fast for the camera and/or film stock. Sometimes, these are presented as a sequence, so that they tell a story, as in 6.9-13, showing a Japanese soldier’s suicide when capture seemed imminent.

Many of the images are genuinely discomforting. Sometimes the image itself appears innocuous, but the text unsettles. So, we learn that the line of men wrapped in oil cloths against the rain, standing with heads bowed around a line of new graves, marked by rough crosses (9.17), were actually taking a huge risk from sniper fire in order to provide an image for the cameraman: such ceremonies were normally considered an impractical luxury. Or that Parer’s portrait of five officers on the Kokoda trail (3.2) is evidence of the high casualty rate on that campaign – only one of the five survived, and he was wounded.

Sometimes it is the image itself that shocks, like that of a dead Japanese soldier lying in an overtaken foxhole (9.13-14). It is still more shocking to be told that this image is softer than the one provided by Ivor Hele, the official war artist, who, the day before Parer took the photograph, had sketched Australian soldiers shooting wounded Japanese as they lay where they had fallen.

Sometimes, the images were so uncomfortable that they were censored – held up, cropped, or even not released at all. It was censorship that led to both Parer and Silk eventually leaving the Australian service – Silk because he became fed up that images for which he had put his life on the line were not being used, Parer because of tension between himself and the Department who employed him. This had begun when a photograph of a sniper’s nest in a tree had been released, against Parer’s express warning that to do so would endanger Australian lives. Parer died in action in 1944, while negotiations were under way to enable him to return to the Australian service. Silk stayed with Life magazine for many years.

In a review, I do not normally remark on editorial lapses, except when these are frequent and/or gross, but a book which places such store on accuracy, and is so critical of the lapses of others, must accept such criticism in return. So, it is a pity that Bert Ive’s name is consistently misspelled, and that the captions of images 7.7 and 7.8 have been transposed.

That said, I have little criticism of what the book does, though I am still a little disappointed at what it does not do. I am not a war historian: I have no detailed knowledge of the campaigns described. I am grateful for the diagrams, which provide some sense of the geography, and the descriptions of the chronology are clear. But there are too many other occasions when knowledge is assumed. I would like to have been told more of the `disgraceful circumstances’ of the 53rd Battalion’s `raising and garrison treatment’ (42), or about just what they did to merit the cryptic comments quoted on page 57. Similarly, on one of the several references to MacArthur’s disdain for the Australian troops, I would like to have been told exactly what he said.

In a book of this kind, aimed at the general reader, I can understand the lack of detailed citation: but I would have really appreciated a bibliography, and – even more – an index.

Finally, I consider that an opportunity has been lost here for detailed examination of some of the photographs. In general, I understand the need to tell a story through the interaction of text and images, and this is done to telling cumulative effect. But we do not often enough stop to examine a single photograph, and when we do it is to point out factual errors or clarify elements of the story, rather than to analyse the image itself, and consider how that image creates meaning. There are, for instance, the two famous images of a soldier being helped out of battle – Silk’s (6.21) and Parer’s (9.1). It still remains for some-one to examine these in depth, to compare how they construct their subject, and perhaps how this differs from other similar images (5.12). Part of the problem for me is my ignorance of the physical environment depicted: I do not instantly recognise people, uniforms, insignia, weaponry – I cannot always even decipher all the elements of denotation within an image (is the cloud rising from the dug-out in 6.35 caused by an explosion? if so, what did the soldier with the rifle do to cause this?). But I am looking for something more than surface meaning – and that is not provided here.

But I do not want to carp. For what is provided is a story that is new and exciting, passionately told. It confirms for me both my admiration of the men who went into these campaigns, and my pacifist convictions: images can show, so much more clearly than any words, both the endurance and bravery of the men who engage in warfare, and the horror and waste of the act of war. And these images also have current political relevance: they show the extent to which Australians owe a still insufficiently-acknowledged debt to the citizens of Papua, New Guinea and Timor.

Ina Bertrand
La Trobe University, Australia.

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →