For the 74th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Elisabeth Fondren about World War I photographer Percy Brown, who captured significant photojournalism history during his time in captivity in a prison camp after he was accused of being a spy.
An assistant professor of journalism at St. John’s University in New York, Fondren is the author of “‘The Mirror with a Memory’: The Great War through the Lens of Percy Brown, British Correspondent and Photojournalist (1914-1920)” in the March 2021 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Elisabeth Fondren: I really do think that pictures matter, but also so do the stories that describe how these pictures were created and who was behind the camera.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.
World War II tends to get most of the attention –
when it comes to history. In today’s episode, we instead focus on the Great War between 1914 and 1918, and a little-known photographer with a colorful background. Percy Brown was a photo correspondent, a magazine journalist, and yes, even a figure skater who captured significant photojournalism history during his time in captivity in a prison camp after he was accused of being a spy.
Brown’s story offers an insider’s view to wartime reporting during World War I through a rare perspective, and demonstrates why photojournalism history matters.
Our guest today is Elisabeth Fondren of St. John’s University, who will discuss her work “The Mirror with a Memory: The Great War Through the Lens of Percy Brown, British Correspondent and Photojournalist.”
Elisabeth, welcome to the show. There’s so much focus on World War II, so what interested you in looking at World War I?
Elisabeth Fondren: Yes, thank you so –
much for the opportunity to be on, on the show, and I definitely think that’s true. I think that media historians have focused on the Second World War a lot, and for good reasons, of course, but I think that some of the origins and also the conflicts between governments and journalists, including, of course, propaganda, censorship, and the relationship between officials and war correspondents, starts much earlier.
So my interest in this period specifically grew really out of my dissertation, which I completed at LSU’s Manship School on German propaganda and World War I. And then this is really – this article was my first biographical piece about a World War I correspondent who really got, yeah, who really got entangled with censors, police, military officials and yeah.
Teri Finneman: So we’re going to focus today specifically on Percy Brown,
who you describe as a British working class carpenter, figure skater, photo correspondent and magazine journalist who covered the 20th century’s first mass media war. So how did you find out about him?
Elisabeth Fondren: Yes. So Percy Brown, who I guess himself, or who called his own — his own story really — he called it a path of crazy paving. I think his life story is really remarkable. I first really came across his notes and photographs and also his records, all of his writings during a research trip for my dissertation at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution archives a couple of years ago.
And when I saw these primary sources, I knew that I had stepped into a goldmine. I – you know, while my topic, the dissertation topic of course was different, I, you know, was researching and I didn’t see anything on –
Percy Brown, or even scholars mentioning him in scholarship on World War I, or, you know, freelance correspondents, or photo correspondents. So I was really excited to write this article.
And then, as you said in your question, really he was somebody who was – we would say he was not a traditional journalist. He had a working-class background, he had no really formal education in writing or reporting. He grew up kind of in western England, Shrewsbury, and he apprenticed as a carpenter.
We know that in the beginning of the 20th century he worked in San Francisco for three years to rebuild the city, and then kind of in his early 20s and mid-20s he was a figure skater, very successfully, in London. And then, yeah, when the war broke out in late summer 1914 –
he traveled to the continent and started covering the war as, you know, somebody who was not accredited, somebody who had a camera but not really, you know, training in in journalism.
So yes, I thought that was a really just interesting project and just person to explore a little bit more.
Teri Finneman: At the start of the war in 1914, British journalists were banned from covering the war in person. Give us some context about that, and when and why that policy changed.
Elisabeth Fondren: Yeah, of course. So as you say, he was taking photographs and really writing stories at a time when, you know, officially there were no British journalists allowed that didn’t – you know, of course that they were not there. Ah, we just don’t really know about those who I guess, you know, ventured out on their own, so what we know about the period is that mass media newspapers,
you know, really were the primary means through which people understood the war.
And the British illustrated press, of course, relied on these type of visuals so there was a great demand for pictures. When the war started, as I said, in late summer 1914, all British correspondents were banned from documenting the front, and officially, you know, members of the military staff were taking photos. And then, you know, there’s a tedious process where information was sent to London and had to be censored, and then was passed down to the press.
But you know, over really a few months later, the British press, who of course, you know, supported the war against Germany and Austria Hungry, was pressured to give in and allow coverage of battles and troops. We also know that
American correspondents, in contrast, had covered the conflict from the start. There was even a letter that was sent, you know, by the U.S. government to the British foreign secretary that said without coverage and visuals of the war, Britain and France could lose the battle for American public opinion.
And so we think that’s – I think that’s — this exertion of pressure had an impact on the British military, and then they loosened this press censorship in June 1915 and started to accredit really a small number of British correspondents and photographers, but at no time during the war was Percy Brown really accredited to, to do his job.
Teri Finneman: Talk more broadly about the relationship between the military and the press during war time.
Elisabeth Fondren: That is, you know, of course, a very big topic. And
we – what we know really about military press relations is that throughout the history of journalism, war correspondents have been jailed as spies and often held back by military or police, governments. And, you know, censors argue that by restricting coverage of the front and of frontline fighting, they can control information in the interest really of national security and, you know, safe guarding, yeah, secrets.
But we also know that this policy often, or does make it very difficult for journalists to provide comprehensive or even objective coverage of any conflict. So there’s, yeah, a long history of military restricting the access to news and information.
And then also in the case of Percy Brown, I found that –
he often really – yeah, he often really pushed his luck. He wrote that, you know, he spent many nights in French prison cells, and that this really conflict between authorities and his access to troops but also frontline battle was one that’s really characterized his experience during the First World War.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so let’s talk more about Percy Brown and how he ended up, ah, photographing World War I.
Elisabeth Fondren: So very little, as I said, has been written about him. Um, so I – you know, in the article what I tried to do is really backtrack his actions and his experiences. And as you said, kind of in the intro, his experiences I think are really remarkable, but they also point – point out really larger themes or the bigger themes when we think about how war correspondents source information, but also then, you know, what are the –
sacrifices they’re willing to make in order to do their jobs.
So we know very little about Brown’s, I guess, initial reaction when the war broke out. He doesn’t really discuss how or even if he was assigned to do this work, but I see that, you know, and his records show that he arrived on the European continent in early August 1914. At that point, he was 29 years old. He had traveled from England to northern France, and he was working, as I said, as a freelance journalist for the London Graphic magazine.
He was not accredited. And then through his kind of, you know, diary and his stories, I could tell that he was in Paris for a few days, but then really he spent a lot of time in Antwerp. He traveled to Ostend, a seaside resort, and then also to various battlefields.
So the way really I tried to structure the article was to look at three big episodes during this period of 1914 to 1920. So I look at, you know, his coverage of the western front, then I’ll talk a little bit about this, this point more in a minute, but he spent three years in enemy prison. And then after the war ended, he was given the opportunity to go to Paris and cover the peace talks.
So that’s kind of how, I guess from a research perspective, tried to, as I said, backtrack his experiences.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, well definitely want to get into all of those things. So why don’t you start out talking about what kind of photos he took.
Elisabeth Fondren: Sure. So as I said, you know, really this collection at the Hoover archives is just so interesting because not only do we have –
really accounts and, you know, his news stories, his notes, but we also have his pictures, and I was, you know, very fortunate and really excited. The editor of Journalism History provided me with the opportunity to share some of those pictures in the actual article.
You know, these pictures alone they are very – let’s say the scope of the pictures is very diverse. We see that sometimes Brown would access battlefields or even cities. There’s one picture that I think I included where in late September 1914 he was in the French city of Reims, which had been destroyed by the German army.
And we can see that, you know, he was standing in the middle of a formerly magnificent street or avenue, and he pictured this destruction. We see rubble, we see smoke, and then what we have –
also on the back of the photograph is his caption and his instructions for the photo editor.
Other examples include people on the photos, including British soldiers. He said that’s, you know, photojournalists, very popular with British soldiers, which he called Tommies. He said that everyone wanted to see their picture in the newspaper. He said that he was popular enough to get his job done, to take photos, although he was often, as he said, hounded by the police and military units.
Other photo subjects include towns, buildings that were destroyed, but we also see the countryside. We see military vehicles, and also see some pictures of Brown himself, which are included in the article. What I would really say is that, you know, through these pictures we see really both
the aggressors of the war because we also have images of German soldiers, we have prisoners of wars, but we also see the victims and really the let’s say consequences of, of this war.
Teri Finneman: You discussed that he ended up being arrested and ended up in a prison camp after being accused of being a spy. He was unbelievably there for three years. Tell us more about that.
Elisabeth Fondren: Yeah, so, you know, just as I was going through these – this material, when I first stumbled upon his records, there was this really this gap, 1915 to 1918, where, you know, of course we don’t really have a lot of records by Brown, but then in his autobiography he talks about how he was yeah, he was really captured by a German police unit.
He had to travel to the Swiss/German border to document a prisoner –
exchange in the fall of 1915. And then of course ironically, he had wanted to take photos of these prisoners, but he was captured and arrested himself. The Germans said that he had crossed enemy lines, he had crossed into Germany.
And so he was transported across the Reich to – first to a central prison Stadtvogtei prison in Berlin, and then after a few weeks he was moved to Ruhleben, which is, you know, close to the suburb of Spandau near Berlin. And he spent three years in this civilian prison where, you know, remarkably, he continued to take photographs, and he was allowed to keep his camera.
In fact, he was also publishing about this experience, which you know, that was it was just such – I don’t know, for me it was just so remarkable to see
journalism published from inside enemy prison about the war. And we also see that, you know, Brown, who was trained as a carpenter in the prison. he did not have to work. Nobody in that specific prison — British civilians did not have to work, but he was often called upon to, you know, work on carpentry projects.
And then the other dimension, of course, of that experience is that this time that he spent in this prison was, you know, had incredible devastating effects on his mental health, his emotional health, his physical health. The prison originally had been a horse race track, and so prisoners were housed in stables.
Brown talks about how these were cold and rat infested. And he also says that, you know, really –
after this episode he had terrible nightmares what I guess others would call the barbed wire disease. He was dreaming about, you know, being locked up. And he also said that his eyes had become very weak during this experience. He said that often they did not have enough food, although there were packages coming in from England.
So really, you know, this part of his war experience, as I said, shows the sacrifice that he made. And then we also know that we also see some of – some of these perspectives and experiences through, as I said, his camera. And there’s — I think in the article there’s two pictures of him in prison, so that was, you know, that was a really – I think it was just a really interesting addition to what –
what we already know about correspondents during the war.
Teri Finneman: So, as you mentioned earlier, Brown also covered the Paris Peace Conference. To some, this may seem glamorous, but it really wasn’t. Ah, tell us about his experience there.
Elisabeth Fondren: Yeah, sure. So the article really, you know, if I may go back, the article opens up with this scene of him escaping from Ruhleben. He had horded some beef drippings and some chocolate, and he was, as he said, bribing the German guards. They let him escape. He made his way into Berlin.
And there, you know, he still had his camera and he continued to cover the socialist revolution in Berlin. Then, in early 19 – in late –sorry, in late 1918 he finally traveled home to England and he was really unsure what to do next.
And, remarkably, he was contacted by the director of the Graphic publication. He said, you know, Percy – or they called him Perce. Ah, that was his nickname. They said, you know, “You have given us – you have provided us coverage from the war and we actually owe you some money, and we might have something else. Would you like to meet with us in London?”
And, you know, he did and they had a dinner. The director offered Brown to cover the Paris Peace Conference and Brown accepted. He knew that this was very prestigious yet in his records and his memoirs he really continues to talk about how he felt that he didn’t really have the experience, and he didn’t really have the technical skills to do this, but he was willing to take, you know, to take this chance and yeah.
He went to –
Paris and started – January 19 started his coverage. He was, as I said, really critical of his own, he said, lack of skills. He said that he couldn’t really compete with the real pressmen, but he called the Paris peace talks a story of words, not actions. He said that although, you know, there was so much at stake, statesmen often, you know, were wrangling.
Sometimes they would fall asleep during speeches, and he said that to him the entire conference seemed like a theatrical production, like propaganda, and he was not really impressed by the swank and snobbery of the conference. So, you know, he was really frustrated. He was – he said that it was – it was difficult for him to find interesting angles for his stories, for his photographs.
And then what is really, really, really interesting is that in –
1919, after a few months that he had spent in Paris, Brown was contacted by the head of British Intelligence, and they offered, you know, for him to travel to London. He met at White Hall with intelligence officials and they asked him if he would consider working as a special agent for them. They said that, “You could work under the screen of the press to get information out of post-war Germany.”
The experience and war prison — during that experience, Brown had actually picked up some German, so he was able to read German. And the decision that Brown actually reached was he turned down this job. He turned down doing espionage.
And really the irony of that offer was that, you know, he had spent three years in German prison because he was accused of being a spy, but then when he was –
offered this job in espionage, he also said that, you know, he was not interested. And so that’s just a really – I think it’s just a really interesting twist of fate for him.
Teri Finneman: So what happened after that? You know, what did he end up doing for the rest of his life?
Elisabeth Fondren: Yeah, so after Paris Peace Conference, he returned to London and he was hired as an art editor at Current Affairs magazine. And he said that, you know, he had tried to avoid an office job for years, but it finally caught on with him. And he spent about 10 years as a photojournalist and as an editor on London’s Fleet Street. First, as I said, with Current Affairs, and then for the Daily Sketch.
His story doesn’t really end there. He became a – he purchased a number of hotels and
he continued foreign correspondence. In 1948 after World War II, he left with his wife on a world tour, and then he eventually settled in San Francisco where he became a life insurance agent. And the British press, this was also interesting, continued to really not, you know, not follow him excessively, but continued to feature small little anecdotes about him.
Really in the late 1960s, Percy Brown was this character, but also his reporting style, which, you know, was critical of authorities which it – which was very versatile. He had adopted the nickname of being an onion because he had so many layers.
And so in 1916, a British magazine said that Brown’s character and his reporting style were –
instructive for younger generations because he showed how journalists can be resourceful, resilient and successful in reporting news when the stakes are high.
Teri Finneman: We usually end our show asking why journalism history matters, but instead tell us today why does photojournalism history matter.
Elisabeth Fondren: That’s an excellent question. I really do think that pictures matter, but also so do the stories that describe how these pictures were created, and who was behind the camera. I think that photojournalism history has helped us to really know more about to witness and to visualize a world and especially conflicts since the mid-19th century.
And I think that, you know, even today we often talk about the truth preposition and authenticity in photographs, but even today we need strong –
images to tell stories, communicate news especially during conflicts, wars or crises.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well thanks so much for joining us today.
Elisabeth Fondren: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at jhistoryjournal. Until next time I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, good night and good luck.