Three US infantrymen in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge, Ardennes, Belgium, World War II, January 1945. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, World War II, June 1944. (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
Photographer/film subject Tony Vaccaro and Director Max Lewkowicz attend a special screening of their new film on November 1, 2016 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for HBO)
Photographer and GI Tony Vaccaro sits on the wing of a downed B-17 Flying Fortress, Mondorf-Les-Bains, Luxembourg, World War II, September 1944. (Anthony Montana/Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
Major Leniel MacDonald and Captain Henry "Bug" Fleming in Britanny, France in August of 1944. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
A young soldier of the Wehrmacht, taken prisoner by the Allies, Rochefort, Belgium, World War II, 29th December 1944. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
An American GI runs with a machine gun during the Battle of the Bulge, Ardennes, Belgium, World War II, January 1945. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
An American GI dances with Marie-Therese Crochu in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, France, World War II, after the liberation of the town, 15th August 1944. French children Monique Rault and Josette Joly can be seen on the right, Rene Gesse on the left. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
American GI Ivan Parrott is seen running through smoke in no mans land near Neuss, Germany during the Battle for the Rhine, World War II, 1st March 1945. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
Sgt Kitner, HQ company, 331st Regiment, 2nd Battalion 83rd Infantry Division of the US Army, World War II, 1944. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
A new HBO documentary, Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC. Tony Vaccaro, focuses on WWII veteran Tony Vaccaro’s dual responsibilities as both a combat infantryman and photographer. The film, directed by Max Lewkowicz, is guided by interviews with photographers and photojournalists, including Vaccaro himself. It explores the impact of witnessing and recording armed conflict, as well as the importance of such visual records.
Through Vaccaro’s recollections of his time as a soldier, the myriad difficulties photographers face in an active war zone are brought to light. Besides Vaccaro, interview subjects for Underfire include Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, New York Times senior photographer James Estrin, and John G. Morris, photo editor of LIFE magazine during World War II.
Vaccaro took over 8,000 photographs during the war, many of which are startling in their clarity and proximity. Since Vaccaro was also an infantryman, his combat perspective was rare among war photographers. “What’s so revealing about Tony Vaccaro’s photographs is he was one of them,” says one voiceover in the preview below. “They trusted him when fighting broke out.” His access to the front lines of the war’s biggest battles, an eye for composition, and relatable demeanor resulted in his stimulating candid images.
Just 21 years old when drafted, Vaccaro was relentless in making sure the war was documented. After being denied the position of Army photographer because he was too young, he brought his camera to Europe anyway—knowing infantrymen weren’t allowed to carry cameras. By the end of the war, Vaccaro estimates he took over 8,000 photographs. Some were even developed in his combat helmet on night missions—demonstrating his commitment to the craft.
After the war ended, Vaccaro successfully transitioned to fashion and magazine photography. Haunted by what he’d seen as an infantryman, Vaccaro never took another combat picture again, and the documentary doesn’t hide his complicated emotional response to his past.
Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC. Tony Vaccaro premiered on November 14, and is available to stream on HBO. Scroll down to see more of Vaccaro’s work below.