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The Ukraine Crisis Echoes Fenton’s Early War Photography In Crimea

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I’ve been unsettled by recent pictures in the media. The unfolding events between Russia and the Ukraine with the mention of place names like Kiev and Sevastopol remind me, and many others I’m sure, of a much older conflict. That is the Crimean War, which lasted from October 1853 to February 1856.

Balaklava from Guard's Hill, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Balaklava from Guard’s Hill, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Crimean War of the 1850s was caused when Russia moved southwards into Crimea to gain control of the warm water ports of the Black Sea which didn’t freeze over in the winter, and were essential if Russia was to build a strong navy and benefit from all year round international trade.

The Head of the Harbour, Balaklava, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Head of the Harbour, Balaklava, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

But that move into Crimea brought Russia into contact and conflict with Ukrainian Cossacks and Tartars.

Roger Fenton in volunteer's uniform, 1860, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Roger Fenton in volunteer’s uniform, 1860, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Eventually, western European countries including Britain became involved. The resulting war was photographed in 1855 by Roger Fenton (1819 – 1859).

St Saviour's Monastery, Moscow, 1852, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

St Saviour’s Monastery, Moscow, 1852, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

It was the first time the camera had been allowed into the field of battle. The photographic results of Fenton’s endeavours shocked the British public when they were published.

Officers on the lookout at Cathcart's Hill, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Officers on the lookout at Cathcart’s Hill, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

When I get home from work I turn on the TV to find out the latest developments. Journalists’ reports are peppered with statements telling us that the root of the current situation between the Ukraine and Russia can be traced to the Second World War. One TV anchorman was so bold as to cite the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century as an historic source.

The Genoese Castle, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Genoese Castle, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

All of this is true, but Fenton’s photographs show that the divide goes even further back. Lately, when I watch a journalist report from Crimea, I listen to what they’re saying but my eye might wander to the landscape in the distance and I’m reminded of some of Fenton’s Ukrainian and Crimean photographs.

Balaklava looking seawards, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Balaklava looking seawards, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

I suppose some things, such as human conflicts, are not quite as old as the hills. They have been here long before us, and will be here long after we’ve gone.

The Railway Yard, Balaklava, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Railway Yard, Balaklava, Crimea, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Written by Brian Liddy

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