In her book Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War, Janina Struk writes, “Cameras, like weapons, are ‘loaded’, ‘aimed’ and the subject ‘shot’.”[1] This simile could not be more appropriate when discussing the role that cameras played in documenting the First World War. While soldiers were using their weapons to “shoot” their subjects, they were also “shooting” their cameras throughout the conflict. The two most popular cameras used by soldiers during the First World War, for both the Allies and the Central Powers, were the Kodak Vest Pocket Camera as well as Kodak’s Autographic Camera.

Once the war began, military authorities quickly realized that photography posed a threat to surveillance and espionage activities. In response, Routine Order 189 was given in March 1915, forbidding Canadian soldiers from using their cameras.[2] The order stated that “all cameras are to be sent home, each camera being examined by the censor before the parcel is passed by him, to ensure that there is no film in it.”[3] This meant that under military law, cameras were not allowed on the battlefield, and possession of a camera or film was punishable via court martial and could lead to a possible death sentence.[4] Only two photographers were given permission to photograph on the Western Front, both of whom were army officers. Their photographs were only meant to record subject matter for use in military training and reporting purposes, and they could not be disseminated to newspapers.[5] Despite these regulations, soldiers continued to sneak their cameras off to war and send photographic evidence of their experiences back home.

By 1914, when the war began, cameras had become smaller and more portable, making them easier for the average person to use. This led to a steady growth in popularity, and the rise of camera clubs, associations, and publications.[6] The First World War was the first major conflict to occur after this democratization of photography, and the Eastman Kodak Company was a leader in introducing the new technology.[7] Despite the orders given to soldiers that bringing cameras to war was illegal, Kodak and other camera companies continued to manufacture and market cameras that were ideal for a soldier to purchase and use while serving their time in the military. A Kodak advertisement from the time read: “Make the parting gift a Kodak. Wherever he goes the world over, he will find Kodak film to fit his Kodak.”[8] This advertisement was released alongside the Kodak Vest Pocket camera, which was marketed as “The Soldier’s Kodak Camera,” and proved to be one of the most popular camera choices for soldiers. It measured 6.5 centimetres by 4 centimetres and came with a “military” case that could be attached to a belt. Once the war began the sale of these cameras increased fivefold, and by the end of the war in 1918, almost two million cameras had been sold.[9]

Another popular Kodak camera used by soldiers during the First World War was the Autographic Camera, launched in 1914. With this camera, the photographer could write captions on the photographs by using a stylus to apply pressure to the sensitive paper between the film and backing after exposure. When the film was developed, the caption would appear on the photograph. Many of the soldier-made photographs that survive today were made with the Autographic Camera.[10]

Soldiers created albums of their forbidden photography in order to preserve the memory of their military service and their time away from home. They made plans to protect these albums and to have them sent home to friends and family should anything happen to them while at war, ensuring that their stories would remain alive for generations to come. Photographic subject matter generally consisted of “training camps, friends in uniform, shipboard photographs, the sights in Britain.”[11] Canadian soldiers would receive film from family members through the mail, and once the film was exposed, it would often be sent to London in the hands of a soldier on leave, who would have it developed in the city and then send it back to family members in Canada.[12] Another way of sending home photographs was through “green envelopes,” which were not subject to censorship from the military. Soldiers could use these envelopes to write home about personal matters; however, they were not readily available, so they had to be used sparingly.[13] Despite these obstacles, amateur photographs taken by military personnel with their Kodak cameras still managed to survive and can be found in many institutional collections to this day.

Kodak played a key, and active, role when it came to the preservation of soldiers’ memories and their experiences during the First World War. The timely appearance of user-friendly cameras, such as the Kodak Vest Pocket Camera and the company’s Autographic Camera, expanded the documentary possibilities of war, despite great personal risk on many fronts. With the 100-year anniversary of the war’s end recently passing in November 2018, many cultural heritage institutions have provided access to these photographs, most of them anonymous, in exhibitions across Canada, allowing viewers to continue to have an insider’s perspective into these historic events.


[1] Janina Struk, Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War(London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2011), 22.

[2] Ann Thomas, “World War 1: The War of the Camera,” in The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography, eds. Bodo don Dewitz, Anthony Petiteau, and Ann Thomas (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2014), 14.

[3] Andrew C. Rodger, “Amateur Photography by Soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” Archivaria26 (1988): 163.

[4] Struk, Private Pictures, 21.

[5] Jorge Lewinski, The Camera at War: A History of War Photography from 1848 to the Present Day(London: W & J MacKay Limited, 1978), 63.

[6] Thomas, “World War 1: The War of the Camera,” 12.

[7] Rodger, “Amateur Photography by Soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” 164.

[8] Struk, Private Pictures, 26.

[9] Struk, 26.

[10] Struk, 26.

[11] Rodger, 164.

[12] Rodger, 167.

[13] Rodger, 167.