These World War II Photos Were Actually Captured During a Modern Reenactment

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Conflict photography is typically a dangerous, traumatizing and, at least in part, heroic profession that puts you in the line of fire with only a camera as a weapon.

But as Penn State grad and former Onward State photographer Mitchell Wilston recently demonstrated to great effect, you don’t need to put yourself in harm’s way to capture the kinds of gritty, black-and-white conflict photography that has become iconic through the ages.

The photos above and below were not taken out of a history book. They were not captured on the field of battle while Wilston tried his best to survive. No, they were taken at a WWII reenactment in Tidioute, PA.

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Described by Wilston as “a small, oil boom town in the middle of the woods,” he says there are only two major events to look forward to if you live near Tidioute: the reenactment, and the state bass fishing tournament.

Last year, he went down to watch the reenactment, but he enjoyed it so much that he decided to come again this year with “my girlfriend’s father (a great amateur photographer), a couple rolls of Tri-X 400, an N75, a D7000, and an assortment of lenses” in tow.

He uploaded the images he captured to Reddit today and the r/photography community really enjoyed them. Black and white closeups of soldiers with looks of intense concentration on their faces, men in full battle attire manning huge guns, and even the candid shot of a soldier looking at the camera with something bordering on disdain and indifference all made the cut.

It’s easy to see why the photos have done so well:

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When we spoke to Wilston about the images, he revealed that most of them were captured with “a cheapo 55-300mm lens and the cheap, but wonderful 35 1.8G.” The images were then tossed into Lightroom where he added a VSCO preset, crushed the blacks even more, and then pulled back some of the preset grain.

He was sure to emphasize, however, that the reason the photos stood out has less to do with post-processing and everything to do with composition:

Close up shots, or being extremely aware of your back drops helps. My girlfriends father helped pick out several key points along the battle line that had backdrops that hid the crowds. This made a big difference. My photos from last year had these touristy looking folks in the back of really gritty, raw photos and it was not nearly as anachronistic.

And while he very humbly admits that he is neither the first nor the best to do this, we have to say we were very impressed with his results, and we think you will be too.

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To see more of Wilston’s work, follow him on Twitter or Instagram, or go back through the Onward State archives to see some of what he licensed through them.

(via Reddit)

Image credits: Photographs by Mitchell Wilston and used with permission

  • Thomas Soerenes

    Needs grain.

  • pgb0517

    The photos are good — too good. I have been trying to puzzle it out by looking at authentic WW II photos. First, these photos don’t look aged enough, and even though all WW II negatives were new and pristine at one time, we maintain our mental images of that war through photos that have been scratched, crumpled, and written on. Second, the focus and clarity are just too good as well. Some motion blur and graininess would help make them more realistic.

    But mainly, as good as the re-enactors are, they cannot capture the fatigue, fear, and battle-worn visages of the real thing, young men who have just come through the Great Depression and are now in the trenches of Europe. Well-fed, well-rested Americans of today just can’t reproduce that look.

  • Kaouthia

    Yup, that’s why I shot the last WW2 re-enactment I went to on film. It just doesn’t look right on digital. Ilford FP4+ and Rollei Retro 100 (Agfa APX100) makes ‘em look great. :)

  • mellowjohn

    the fact that camera technology has advanced greatly may have something to do with it as well. along with the photog not being shot at.
    seriously tho, why the hell would anyone dress up as a german. makes even less sense to me than the civil war re-enactors who dress up as confederates.

  • Kaouthia

    Even new and pristine film isn’t as “clean” as digital. The character’s not there with a sensor.

  • Mitchell Wilston

    Yea, I pulled it back and then everyone has pointed out that I should have added more. Oh well, I can always do that later. I still need to get the Tri-X developed. Photography is always a learning experience, right?

  • Chris


  • Adam Cross

    I’ll never understand why people want to reenact moments of war. Seems to trivialise it all. each to their own I suppose

  • Kaouthia

    Now those I’ll be looking forward to seeing. :)

  • Bill Binns

    Agreed. Something about these photos just screams “digital”. If someone really wanted to make period correct images, the cameras in use at the time are available and afordable.

  • Bill Binns

    Ha! I was wondering the same thing. The confederates I understand as there is no shame at all in the American South connected with the cofederate military. However, it must be tough for anyone to order that Nazi uniform and SS deaths head insignia from wherever such things are ordered. It must be an awkward moment when your new girlfriend stumbles across your Panzergrenadier uniform in the back of your closet.

  • Aezreth

    I don’t get why you would want to make fake conflict photos. If you are going to document a reenactment then show it for what it is. I remember seeing something to that effect a while back and that was much more interesting to look at. This will never be more than memorabilia for the people involved at best. For Petapixel to say that you don’t need to put yourself in harms way to capture powerful conflict photos is absurd and belittles the work of actual photojournalists.

  • Sarpent

    We’re also a lot more … um … shall we say well-fed, these days. Reenactor’s uniforms don’t fit soldiers the way that they used to in pretty much any historic time period beyond a couple of decades ago.

  • OtterMatt

    That’s exactly what I was thinking. It just looks too… modern. Too clean, perhaps. Great shots, though, even without the full ambiance.

  • Tony

    Bunch of middle aged men playing soldiers…LOL… But they’re doing a great job. And the pictues are awesome!

  • Toby Hawkins

    I saw a BBC documentary about this a while ago. It turned out a lot (in Europe at least) of the nazi reenactors actually harboured neo-nazi or antisemitic views. Not all, but a very worrying amount.

  • Rob S

    their uniforms are too clean. For that matter, so are the vehicles. In combat you are either dusty or wet.

  • Rob S

    The average German soldier was just doing his job and in any case he was at worst the invader of another country, not a rebellious traitor against his own country.

  • Rob S

    Too fat, too tall. Americans were much thinner in 1942 than today.

  • Rob S

    No shame? They were traitors and would have been lined up and shot. It was only the personal stature of Lee and the wish of Lincoln that kept it from happening. The fact that many many many in the South want to return to the Confederacy is an indication that Lincoln was wrong.

  • Rob S

    People who have lived war don’t need to reenact it. That said:

    “When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle”

    It sucks.

  • Tom Watkin

    They look like modern re-enactments.

  • Theunis Stofberg

    One thing is for certain. 70 Years ago a lot more of the men would have been smoking. You would have seen men smoking in almost every second shot.

  • Bill Binns

    I was not commenting on wether or not there should be shame surrounding the memory of the confederacy. I was simply noting that there is none (at least in the south). In GA, AL, TN, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a statue of Robert E Lee. There are thousands of roads, schools, towns, librarys etc named after Confederate notables. I have not yet been to Germany but I doubt that Nazis are honored in the same way over there.

  • Rob S

    Actually its against the law to promote Naziism in any way in Germany. I lived in West Germany in the 80’s and it was still a difficult subject.