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© Crown Copyright, IWM
© Crown copyright, Sgt Steve Hughes, British Army
Hilary Roberts is the Imperial War Museum (IWM) Research Curator of Photography in the UK. Born in Nottinghamshire, she studied at the University of Sussex, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg i. Breisgau, Germany and University College London before joining the Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive as a junior curator in 1980.
In 1996, Hilary was appointed Head Curator of the Archive. In this role she strengthened the collections, oversaw a series of major digitisation programmes and pioneered policies and procedures for managing large collections of born-digital as well as analogue based photography.
In 2013, she was appointed to her current post with a remit to lead on IWM projects relating to historic and contemporary war photography. This includes IWM Contemporary, a new programme of exhibitions and events showcasing the work of contemporary artists and photographers.
As a specialist in the history of war photography, Hilary works with collections of historic war photography worldwide as well as with photographers covering current conflicts. Hilary acted as consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for its award winning exhibition and book War/Photography (2012) and has recently returned from a trip to Kiev where she helped raise awareness of the importance of Ukraine’s neglected photographic record of the First World War. She is a member of the Oracle International Photocurator network and serves on various bodies concerned with historic and contemporary photography.
Hilary has numerous broadcasts and publications on war photography to her name. In September 2013, her talk on Robert Capa’s coverage of D-Day was broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3’s The Essay series. Her most recent book, produced with Mark Holborn, is The Great War: A Photographic Narrative (Jonathan Cape/Knopf, 2013). The book, nominated as one of the Guardian’s best books of 2013, was described by the New York Times as possibly ‘the greatest anthology (yet) of World War I photographs’.
As a Canon Master, Hilary Roberts, Imperial War Museum’s Research Curator of Photography, brings her wealth of experience as both historian and curator to the Canon Ambassadors programme. She offers a unique perspective on the importance of preserving historic and contemporary images of conflict – and getting the facts behind them absolutely right.
“Some photographers call me Mother or Auntie,” smiles Hilary Roberts. As IWM Research Curator of photography, her relationship with the many photographers she works with is precious. And she values it completely.
“I have been known to chase photographers around the world if they haven’t filled in their metadata or file information properly,” she laughs. “There was one chap who was in the Red Sea on a diving mission. I phoned him up said ‘Hey, where’s your caption information!’ It’s a very good relationship and a very good humoured one…”
When Hilary first joined IWM in 1980, she never thought it would become her career. “I assumed it would just be an interim thing until the Falklands War of 1982. That changed everything,” she reflects. “I realised how important contemporary events are and how they are informed by history.”
Hilary has since become a world authority on war photography and has worked on many important exhibitions, books and media projects over the past three decades. She has quite a task before her in preserving images for the nation, and no two days are ever the same.
“I can find myself working anywhere and in the average day I can be flitting backwards and forwards in time between any number of conflicts,” she explains. “At the moment, for instance, I am juggling projects relating to the First World War, the Second World War and the present day. IWM is a family of five museums, you see, and I can be involved in any of the photographic projects it undertakes.”
She continues: “The job I do is fascinating because it never stands still. I have one foot in the present and one in the past. I have to make sure I am up to speed on the latest technology, its potential and how it is applied. That has become more important than ever since the digital revolution. Digital requires curators to work more closely with conflict photographers in a way that the old film days perhaps didn’t.”
“One of the things that my role involves is liaising closely with Armed Forces photographers because IWM preserves their work for the nation. But I treasure my links with all types of photographer.” she affirms. “Not only through their work but also through the insight their experiences give me which helps me prepare for what my job will involve in years to come. It’s quite fascinating.”
Hilary appreciates the unique perspective her position gives her, and is regularly called upon to comment on conflict coverage. She remains humbled, however, when remembering the high price there is to pay for photographing war.
“I think photographers who take on conflict as a subject do a very important job,” she states. “But they face considerable challenges in doing it and one only has to think of Giles Duley (who became a triple amputee in 2011 after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan) and others, to recognise what the personal cost has been.
War shapes the lives of the people caught up in the middle of it, and that includes the lives of photographers too.”
“If you look at the timeline of events, each conflict has its unique characteristics insofar as documenting war through the camera is concerned. Technology plays a vital part in this, as does the infrastructure that’s in place.”
She cites legendary photographer Don McCullin as an example of great visual storytellers. “In Vietnam, when photographers like Don were able to move around almost without restriction, telling the story to newspapers around the world, photography was a very different process.”
“The Falklands War was informed by the legacy of Vietnam, but it also prefaced some things to come,” she reveals. “About 50 per cent of photography from the Falklands was in colour, for example, and that was led by the amateur market – the servicemen who had their personal cameras were shooting in colour but newspaper photographers were still working primarily in black & white and relying on wire technology to get their pictures out quickly. New colour printing technology and satellite communications, both introduced in time for the Gulf War of 1991, heralded a shift-change for the professionals.”
On photographic technology, Hilary gives a very honest opinion. “One of the downsides of today’s digital era is that speed at which things go,” she cautions. “And also the sheer quantity of images that we deal with every day. The combination limits opportunities to put things into their proper context and sometimes mistakes are made.” She gives an example: “On one occasion recently I contacted the BBC because they had captioned a photograph incorrectly. It wasn’t the BBC’s fault at all – they had obtained the picture from an agency and it was the agency’s data that was inaccurate. Commercial pressures meant that neither organisation had had the time to check the facts. But, as we know, the ability to manipulate digital images means that accuracy in documentary war photography is absolutely key.”
So have we already seen the golden age of photojournalism and conflict coverage? Hilary ponders the question. “Each age has its unique characteristics, advantages, disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses,” she explains. “I would hesitate to highlight any one age as a golden one. When it comes to conflict, photographers are trying to document or tell a story with the tools of the time. So, as to the golden age? I feel every age has its unique qualities.”
“Taking the long view, you can see certain themes or subjects that come up in war photography time and time again. The challenge for me is to tease out what is unique about the treatment of a particular theme in a particular conflict. I am both a historian and a curator. A historian’s job is to establish the facts, while a curator acts as a bridge between the facts and the audience. In terms of establishing the uniqueness of an event or its importance, a curator’s interpretation can help people from every background and knowledge base appreciate a photographer’s work.”
Hilary regularly meets with photographers and always enjoys the process of reviewing work. “I often meet with photographers who wish to show me their portfolios, talk about where their projects are going, discuss the relevance of their work and what the potential opportunities might be” she reveals.
“One of the advantages of the job that I do is that as far as most photographers are concerned, it’s not a commercial relationship. So I can listen and feed back to them without that sense of commercial competition. Which I hope they find useful.”
“Of course one of the things that you have to remember is that a photographer’s work may evolve considerably” she continues. “If you take Robert Capa as an example, there is no doubt that his work improved enormously as time went on.”
Hilary continues: “When you are photographing a war over any length of time there is a pattern that evolves. At the start, photographers will approach it through what they already know, which is often informed by the conflict that came before. So the imagery you start off with will often look, shall we say, a little familiar? Over time photographers not only get better at their work. They also adapt to the nature of the new conflict they are photographing. That was certainly the case with Capa. I think it was also the case with Don (McCullin). It was definitely the case for Lee Miller whose work in the Second World War is the subject of my current project.“
Hilary has recently been championing the work produced by women photographers in the First World War, as she reveals. “I recently helped run a colloquium on women photographers of the First World War at the House of Lords. Not many people know that there were any women taking war photographs at this time and the purpose of the event was to raise awareness of what these women have done and achieved.”
“As a curator it’s all about helping people to understand,” Hilary argues. “If you do not understand then how can you form an opinion? A curator must be objective, there’s no doubt about it, particularly with the subject that I deal with. There are times when I have to accept that not all facts are known, and that means that I basically say ‘OK, that’s as far as we can go with this,’ but when I interpret it, I must make sure that people understand that there might be more of the story to come.”
On the subject of emotions, Hilary is very understanding. “The degree that war photographers become emotionally involved in their subject has always varied and will continue to do so. We all know how difficult it is these days to get an assignment, particularly getting the funding together to go to more remote parts of the world. If you then only have a few days, it can be hard to develop a relationship with the subject. It’s one of the challenges of the embed system I think.”
She continues: “Most recent embeds, in Afghanistan for example, have been relatively short. Photographers who have embedded for longer – and I’m thinking particularly of the late Tim Hetherington here – develop a very strong relationship with their subject. For war photographers, the challenge of a long embed is to avoid losing objectivity. They face the dilemma of either not being involved enough, or of being too involved. And how in today’s environment do you get that balance right?”
“With all the difficulties involved – financial, getting the permissions, and so on – how do you get that emotional and objective balance? It’s never been easier to photograph war, and yet somehow, it’s never been harder.”