Germany recognized the potential of photography and used photos for propaganda as early as 1914. The images were used to influence public opinion in neutral countries. France realized that it could not stay behind and decided to set up its own photography unit to counter the German propaganda. Following the creation of the film unit Section Cinématographique des Armées (SCA), the Section Photographique de l’Armée (SPA) was founded on May 9, 1915. The unit’s photographers were expected to take images:
From the historical point of view, from the perspective of image propaganda in neutral countries, from the point of view of military operations, for the compilation of documentary archives of the Ministry of War.
The SPA had to do with three different ministries. The service fell under the direct control of the Ministry of War. The Ministry of Art was responsible for developing and archiving the photos and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs distributed the images for propaganda purposes.
The SPA was led by Lieutenant Pierre Marcel Lévi and its headquarters were located on Rue de Valois in Paris. The photographers were called opérateurs and were recruited from the military, but were eligible only if they were unfit for combat duties. At the end of 1917, the SPA employed 27 photographers. The service also consisted of a laboratory for developing photos, an archive and administration.
A photography mission to the battlefields was tightly coordinated. The photographer was sent on the initiative of the Ministry of War. Local army commanders were informed of the photographer’s arrival and the army arranged for the transport. On location, the photographer was accompanied by an officer. He gave detailed instructions on what to shoot. After the mission, the photographer was obliged to return to headquarters immediately. After developing the photos, it was assessed whether they were suitable for publication. The photographers were expected to keep notes of the scene photographed and the date so that this information could be archived with the photos.
The SPA made about 120.000 photos during the war, including about 20.000 stereo photos. Images of destroyed cathedrals were made for documentary purposes, but also to show how the “German barbarians” destroyed France’s cultural heritage. It also mapped out the military operations and living conditions of the soldiers. It was important to show a positive picture in order to keep morale high. The real horrors of the war were barely captured. Images of the bodies of fallen German soldiers reached the general public, but those of French fallen were blocked by censorship.
Already during the war, photo albums were published that depicted the course of the war. Exhibitions were also held where the public could view stereoviews. In 1917 the SPA merged with the SCA film unit to form the Section Photographique et Cinématographique des Armées (SPCA). The unit is disbanded after the war on September 10, 1919.
- Les soldats de la mémoire : La section photographique de l’armée, 1915-1919, Hélène Guillot, 2017