Felice Beato was an Italian-British photographer who began his career taking the first-ever photographs of battle during the Crimean War. Beato is renowned not only for venturing into a new genre of photography so soon after the art's inception, but also for pioneering various new techniques and for photographing places, events, and people that were previously inaccessible to a wide audience. Beato brought the East to the West, giving British citizens insight into the cultures of and wars going on in countries like China, India, Japan, and Burma. He ventured into photographing corpses on the battlefield, a first in war photography history, and took his skills and creativity all around the world.
Beato's innovation and mastery of a blossoming genre have secured him in the history books as one of the most prominent war photographers of all time. He was, after all, the man who captured one of the most haunting photographs of the 19th century, that of the crucified Japanese servant.
In 1856, when Felice Beato was only 24, a photographer named James Robertson sent him to photograph the battle sites of the Crimean War. The battle had been extensively covered in the Western press – and equally photographed thanks to Beato. However, Robertson himself signed the 150 photographs that he brought back. Thankfully, contemporary sources such as the Times London noted that "Mr. Robertson... has sent up an intelligent photographer to the Crimea, and he is now engaged in fixing, as far as possible, every remarkable sight on paper."
Funnily enough, the man who kick-started Beato's career, James Robertson, became Beato's brother-in-law in 1855, before he sent Beato to document the Crimean War.
From a young age, Beato and his family moved around. He was born in Venice, Italy, in 1832, raised on an island off of Greece, and moved with his family to Constantinople in 1844 (which is where he met James Robertson).
Beato, his brother Antonio, and Robertson went on a photographic expedition to the Middle East in 1857, and they visited Palestine, Egypt, and Greece. By this point, Beato had been sufficiently bitten by the travel bug and spent the rest of his life wandering the world, following the expansion of the British empire throughout the East. He visited countless countries and took countless photographs along the way, earning him the ability to be one of the first to photograph countries such as India, China, Burma, and Japan.
As the British Empire expanded across the East in the 19th century, so did the British people's curiosity about these foreign lands. Beato had already taken advantage of Britain's interest in the Indian Mutiny by photographing the aftermath of the revolt. As Beato continued to hone his photographic skills, the market for photographs of places previously unavailable to Westerners was booming. These photographs were collected as souvenirs and seen as more impartial than paintings.
Luckily for Beato, because of his extensive travel in the East, he was able to be one of the first photographers to capture these mysterious lands – besides war photography, Beato was well-known for his architectural and cultural photographs. Beato's diverse range of photographs catered to a very specific audience and preserved a very specific moment in time – the expansion of the British Empire and its direct effects on these Eastern countries.
Despite Britain's immense interest in Eastern lands – and the wars and rebellions occurring in these foreign places – no one had photographed war before Felice Beato, because of "Victorian sensibilities." In the mid-to-late 19th century, Victorians were considered prudish, demure, and rigid, and therefore sensitive to gruesome material. In her book on Felice Beato, Anne Lacoste writes:
Other photographers, in deference to Victorian sensibilities, avoided picturing the full carnage of war; Beato was the first to depict the actual devastation of the battles sites, including enemy corpses and scattered bones lying among the ruins.
Beato was, simply put, a renegade who didn't care what other people thought or about what the 'norm' was, and he used his unique perspective as a Westerner in Eastern countries to capture the first war photographs in history.