Writing on photography

Camera-gun, Gun-camera: A Short History of Shooting

Nikon has lately found itself in the sights of nature photographers. The company has long been an enthusiastic corporate sponsor of a number of wildlife photography and conservation related prizes, but at the same time has also been producing a series of rather euphemistically named ‘sport’ scopes aimed at gun enthusiasts. This was apparently OK with most of its customers, it’s just the latest advertising campaign for these products which has caused trouble, because it specifically describes these scopes as ‘engineered for safari’ and aligns them with trophy hunters ‘seeking dangerous game and adventure on the Dark Continent’.

Wildlife photographers increasingly view themselves as conservationists and a number have openly denounced Nikon over the debacle, threatening to end sponsorship deals and boycott products until the company ends production of these items. It’s seemingly hypocritical of Nikon to align itself with two opposing camps, but hey, they’re a company and most companies are out to make money, not maintain consistent moral positions. What I think is more interesting about the dispute is it’s an opportunity to note that  perhaps the two camps, safari hunters and wildlife photographers, are not as different as they seem, indeed the relationship between cameras and firearms is long and intimate.

Many, not least Susan Sontag, have pointed to the shared vocabulary of shooting and photographing. For example to ‘hunt’ or ‘stalk’ ones subject and then to ‘load’ ‘aim’ ‘shoot’. The term ‘snap-shot’ now synonymous with a poorly considered or executed photograph originated before the invention of photography, and meant to shoot in a hurried, un-aimed manner. Other theorists have pointed to the aggressive, and possessive nature of photography, which like hunting, often (although not always) consists of the reduction of living things to objects or trophies.

In technical terms gun and camera technology evolved along similar lines throughout the nineteenth century. Both developed from complex processes involving the combination of multiple elements in the field (bullet and propellant or plate and emulsion) to making use of simplified pre-packaged ammunition and photographic film that dramatically increased the ease of use and ‘rate of fire’. Nitrocellulose, a key ingredient in the Collodion photographic process and later the basis for notoriously dangerous nitrate films, was also known as gun cotton, and was employed as a military explosive and later as a component in the propellant of some small arms.

George Eastman, who went on to found Kodak, was a sometimes hunter and it has been suggested his photographic innovations was at least partially inspired by a revolutions in the design and manufacture of firearms, not least those marketed by Samuel Colt. Indeed a number of early camera designs borrowed from the mechanism of the iconic Colt revolver, for example the Thompson revolver camera of 1862. Similarly early movie cameras sometimes built on the existing gun technology, the remarkable Akeley cine camera  being one example which operated via a hand crank inspired by weapons like the Gatling machine gun. It’s perhaps also interesting to note that as well as being an inventor, Akeley was a biologist and curator of the American Natural History Museum who made numerous trips to collect (i.e. hunt) animals for scientific collections.

It has been suggested, somewhat controversially, that wildlife photography evolved directly out of safari hunting. One theory is that it was a response to catastrophic falls in the populations of hunted animals. The invention of photography offered an opportunity for Europeans to engage in many of the same activities, and return with all important trophies, but without diminishing wild populations further, it was a form of conservation by necessity. Another argument is that wildlife photography represented the ultimate subjugation of the natural world by man, a world that was no longer so wild and dangerous that it had to be dealt with at the end of a gun, but one which was tamed and secured in wildlife preserves and safari parks where it could be photographed at leisure.

Prior to the Second World War the phenomena of the linked gun-camera emerged. Mainly used in aircraft they were intended to give pilots and intelligence personnel an indication of accuracy and effectiveness of weapons against their targets. To conserve valuable film the cameras were activated only during firing. In the post-war era this footage often found its way into Hollywood war films, where it offered a cheap and realistic alternative to models and other special effects, but invariably unbeknownst to audiences who believed what they were viewing was a fiction.

Post war there were more strange blurrings of the border between gun and camera, camera and gun. In the 1950’s the Japanese police are supposed to have modified a series of pistols to take photographs, because this hybrid offered a more stable platform than a conventional camera. A number of commercial equivalents followed. Inversely the CIA are meant to have experimented with cameras with hidden guns inside them as a possible assassination weapon, although whether they were ever actively used is unknown. Somewhere between the two is the present day combat footage that often surfaces on video sharing sites like Youtube, filmed by serving soldiers who have mounted small cameras on their helmets or weapons. Similarly today there often appear photographic accessories that seem to overly emphasise the similarities between camera and gun, for example holsters that make it possible to quick draw a camera in the style of a wild west cowboy drawing his revolver.

Returning to the topic of Nikon’s public relations fail, it’s interesting that despite the apparently clear divergence that exists today between between wild life photographers and hunters, there are at least some who see the former as not much better than the latter. Some critics, for example the Indian documentary maker Shekar Dattatri, make a distinction between wild life photography and conservation photography, and warn that the former practice can just as easily become, like hunting, a regressive practice of trophy hunting machismo, that damages habitats rather than conserves them. Whatever the case, as Nikon face a storm of criticism for their mixed loyalties it will be interesting to see if they choose to respond to their critics, or continue to divide their loyalties between snappers and shooters.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography