PDA

View Full Version : Can great photographs still change the world?


Rafael
04-02-2007, 11:03
I was involved in an animated and prolonged discussion the other day on the question of whether or not great photographs still hold the power to change the world. I'm sure that everyone here can think of numerous iconic images that crystalized public opinion or that conveyed a shared sentiment so powerfully as to have actually changed the course of history.

I argued that photographs are inherently superior to video and film when it comes to conveying strong emotions because of the way they isolate a single moment in time. Photojournalism, in my opinion, retains its capacity to forcefully alter people's opinions and views or to make them aware of issues and problems that demand their attention. However, most of my interlocutors seemed to agree that people these days do not view still photographs very often. Their knowledge of world events is, to a greater and greater extent, developed through internet surfing rather than newspapers. Consequently, the power of photojournalism has been greatly diminished. And current media trends suggest that it will not be recovered.

What are your opinions on this question?

MartinP
04-02-2007, 11:25
Surely, video-news reports, not photo-rapportage and written articles, are the main source of opinion-forming information for most in Europe and North America. Think back to the BBC reports of the famine in the horn of Africa for example, the immediate effects on the public were due to the massive distribution of the news by television. Still pictures no longer have the same mass effect.

Combine that with the knowledge of how the still photograph is now changed and turned in to a "lie" by every person with a digital camera. Although this occurred previously (the famous "missing-Trotsky "picture with Lenin delivering a speech for example), the normal persons newfound familiarity with the ease that images can be altered, has also altered the believability of the static image.

I suppose that this is not to say that video is inherently any more truthful than a still photograph, just that it is perceived to be so by the layman - and it is the ordinary person who may react to the images and "change the world".

Overall, stills have lost the popular, western market, as you might say. The single exceptional picture seems to be used to support previous (mis-)conceptions, rather than stir a revolutionary change of heart.

Depressing stuff, particularly when one considers the alarmingly few businesses who commission, edit and run video-reporting.

mhv
04-02-2007, 11:27
I suppose that, following your reasoning, literature is a putrid medium when it comes to express strong emotions, because it is often narrative ;)


There's a problem with the way you use "inherent." Photography has some inherent properties, most of them are technical in nature (relationship to light, optical perspective, etc), but I don't think it has inherent aesthetic properties. Rather, you have to look at how people USED the medium to see what kind of aesthetic properties are possible in photography, but if photo seems adequate to the expression of strong emotions, then so is painting. And photojournalism is about isolating MANY moments, thereby creating a narrative, a sequence of linked pictures, not just isolated frames.


The question for me isn't: can great photos change the world (I'm not even sure if they can). Rather, it is: Does the world want to be changed by a great photograph anymore?

Rob Skeoch
04-02-2007, 11:46
Sorry to say but I don't think they ever did change the world. I used to think they did.

The other day I was discussing the "Photo Story" with the college Journalism class I teach and was showing some Eugene Smith photos from years back, images about Mercury poisoning.... boy they kind of look like Natchways images from Agent Orange that ran in Vanity Fair this year.

And pictures from Africa in the 70's look just like the starving children of the nineties and like the ones taken this year. So what has changed.

I'm starting to believe that if you want to make the world a better place you should sell your photo gear, enroll in a college nursing program, quit after one year and go into the field and save lives. Now that would make a difference.

But photos changing the world... I wish it was true.

-Rob Skeoch

lushd
04-02-2007, 12:10
Don't know about change, but photographs can certainly still get the world very excited. Good example? The pictures taken at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. But did they change anything? I think they began to shift public opinion, but lots of other things happened too.

jan normandale
04-02-2007, 12:34
Abu Ghairab photos did change the world, especially the mid East and the US. Just as the World Trade Center photos of people jumping changed the US.

What is most interesting to me is the photos were done by 'amateurs' not professionals.

VinceC
04-02-2007, 12:41
I have a couple of thoughts:

1. The so-called "golden age" of photojournalism -- arguably the 1930s to the 1970s -- was an era of discovery. With improved photo technology, faster lenses, faster films, people were able to photograph things for the first time. This culminated, I suppose, with pictures of people on the moon. We now have a full catalogue of pictures dipicting the human experience ... from Capa's (alleged) moment of death for a Spanish soldier to Lennart Nilsson's pictures of pre-born children. Wars, famine, street children, weddings, Monsoons. It has all been photographed at least once. So today's photographs add to the tapestry of human experience, but they seldom create a new pattern.

2. The Internet is a great distributor of still images. It is not destroying still images. It is multiplying their availability to the point that only a few can rise above the chatter.

3.There are still iconic photos. It is usually the subject matter, not the "greatness of the photographer" that makes them iconic. And, because of an improved distribution channel, it is often a series or collection of photographs that becomes iconic, not an individual image. Recent iconic images include: At least two from the 2001 World Trade Center attack. At least two Abu Ghraib photographs are now iconic. Paul Watson's photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through Mogadishu in 1993 was iconic, in part because the personal danger involved meant there was only one photographer at the scene with access to international distribution.

VinceC
04-02-2007, 12:44
>>What is most interesting to me is the photos were done by 'amateurs' not professionals.<<

That has to do with the democratization of photography. Everyone has access to a camera now. So we are all "witnesses." I was at a museum a few weeks ago, and one teenager was telling another, "I wish I'd brought a camera." The other replied, "use your cell phone." And they took their picture.

rogue_designer
04-02-2007, 12:47
Only People can change the world.

But photographs can sometimes move people better than any other media. I don't think we can address how a photograph changes events. Only the emotions and ideas it intends for its audience.

People, I feel, are more jaded and apathetic these days. That does affect photography's ability to influence them. Overtaken by more visceral media like live video.

But I have faith.

Jocko
04-02-2007, 13:05
Pictures certainly change perceptions - but whether they should is another matter. The golden age of photojournalism was also a time of relative naivity with regard to the media (as famously exploited by Orson Welles in his "War of the Worlds" broadcast).

To cite a fairly minor case, images of the Hindenburg airship crash effectively eliminated one of the safest and most potentially useful forms of transport. Most of the occupants simply walked out of the airship: but the pictures show an inferno which no-one could survive.

Truth is more complex than a photograph and if we are more sceptical today, it is probably for the best.

Cheers, Ian

Pherdinand
04-02-2007, 14:16
sorry...as rogue designer says...only people can. And even people have a hard time, lately. The world grew too big, i guess.

Photos never changed the world. Sorry, Jan Normandale, i don't think they did. Maybe they changed your view of the world, inside your head, and maybe same for some more people. But that's it.

Finder
04-02-2007, 15:38
Here is another vote for photographs having never changed the world. It is mostly art criticism / art history hype.

Bike Tourist
04-02-2007, 15:58
All the great photojournalists, using their talent and insite and skill and compassion and involvement, sometimes at great personal risk, producing persuasive argument and brilliant art, will say that they wanted to expose wrongs, bring light to the world (and possibly earn a living).

None will say they actually had evidence that minds were changed enough to matter.

History seems to confirm that.

jan normandale
04-02-2007, 16:11
I won’t go too far here however to believe there is no interrelationship between photographs and connecting ideas, which leads to change you are being lawyerly. To suggest a photo or anything else cannot effect change is isolating facts to the point of their irrelevance. It seems the discussion is focusing on a tree and missing the fact it’s part of a forest.

Persisting images send messages and those messages are acted upon. Still images, motion pictures, video all have this power. From the stimuli of those images people discuss, and act. Even paintings have this power. We are visual creatures and visual stimuli are exactly that; stimuli.

Channels of distribution can take many forms such as word of mouth or hard copy media not just the internet, TV or motion pictures. It all boils down to how you see things. Some people genuinely won’t get a message from an image. Some do. And those people act upon that message or stimuli.

Ask your kids about Pokemon. Think about the image of Super Mario for Nintendo’s advertising. Do you think these images didn’t change the world?

breeze
04-02-2007, 16:46
The very purpose of propaganda, which works through images as well as words and music, is to influence what people think and do. If one accepts that propoganda works, the logical conclusion is that images can indeed have an impact on men's hearts, minds and actions.

Berliner
04-02-2007, 16:50
I am pessimistic by nature. I don't think anything can change the world these days. Not even people. I think photographs CAN motivate people to WANT to change the world, and that is a much more important accomplishment.

mfunnell
04-02-2007, 17:07
Pictures certainly change perceptions - but whether they should is another matter. The golden age of photojournalism was also a time of relative naivity with regard to the media (as famously exploited by Orson Welles in his "War of the Worlds" broadcast).

To cite a fairly minor case, images of the Hindenburg airship crash effectively eliminated one of the safest and most potentially useful forms of transport. Most of the occupants simply walked out of the airship: but the pictures show an inferno which no-one could survive.

Truth is more complex than a photograph and if we are more sceptical today, it is probably for the best.

Cheers, IanI couldnt agree more. I think that images, and particularly still images are a powerful medium of argument. A single image can "distill" a narrative (which is used to "frame" the image). While I'm not saying moving images aren't powerful and important too, they are both too ephemeral (you can't look at an image in depth because the next, and the next etc. are already presented) and take too long: you can illustrate a story - written or spoken - with a still image but can't with video or film clips, as they suspend the story while the clip is watched - and usually tell their own story rather than the one they're supposed to illustrate.

A still image can be glanced at, looked at in depth, mulled over, gone back to etc. even as the narrative is being expounded.

Of course, the trouble comes with interpretation. An image may be used to illustrate the narrative or even be presented as evidence in support of it - but does it and is it?

This photo, for example, has been used by everybody from media outlets to Al Gore (or is he a media outlet??) to support their narrative of global warming:
http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/img/2007/ep6/snap1.jpg (http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1887890.htm)

But does it really? There's a long back-story: click on the image to see the transcript of a story in Australian ABC's "Media Watch" last night. (There's also a story about a manipulated image and other interesting stuff from the same show.)

The photographer maintains she took it as a cool photo, nothing more. It was taken in summer (when ice is supposed to melt), the bears are good swimmers and were quite close to shore. However, Associated Press (which had acquired the photo through a long chain of events) released it (2 1/2 years after it was taken) to conicide with stories on global warming and threats to animal habitat. Assorted media outlets and activists pounced it like, well, a polar bear on a seal - and off it went.

This, it seems to me, is one of the problems with photos that "tell a story". Mostly they don't - they illustrate a story and can in fact illustrate many stories. This photo would have been quite good as an illustration for the global warming story if it had simply been presented and labeled "Stock Photo" somewhere. It only became problematic when someone more-or-less invented the story of the photo and added it to their pre-existing narrative and especially when it was presented as evidence in support of the narrative.

Now, of course, the same photo is being used as "evidence" in a counter-narrative of "environmentalists lying about photos". Of course its not evidence of that either. Its just a photo. The story seems to be more about laziness and "confirmation bias" than lying (but I could be wrong there, too).

I don't think there would be so much fuss if the photo were perceived to be without power. Its just that the power of photography can be put to many uses, as can the photographs themselves. "With great power comes great responsibility", as Peter Parker would say. If only that were always the way people approached things...

...Mike

P.S. I'm agnostic on the global warming thing, and don't want to talk about it here - this is about photographs.

Chaser
04-02-2007, 17:24
Sorry to say but I don't think they ever did change the world. I used to think they did.

The other day I was discussing the "Photo Story" with the college Journalism class I teach and was showing some Eugene Smith photos from years back, images about Mercury poisoning.... boy they kind of look like Natchways images from Agent Orange that ran in Vanity Fair this year.

And pictures from Africa in the 70's look just like the starving children of the nineties and like the ones taken this year. So what has changed.

I'm starting to believe that if you want to make the world a better place you should sell your photo gear, enroll in a college nursing program, quit after one year and go into the field and save lives. Now that would make a difference.

But photos changing the world... I wish it was true.

-Rob Skeoch

Change the world? Maybe not with some single image that makes the entire world decide that killing each other is a bad idea...but the dissemination of information is still relevant. What makes you think that there is a strong need for nurses somewhere in the world? It is unlikely that one would wake up one morning and out of the blue think "Hmm, there must be some landmine victims in Cambodia, think I will book a flight and go work on some prosthetics." There are many factors involved in change, and information is an important one. Photography in and of itself cannot change the world, but it can be a useful tool.

VinceC
04-02-2007, 18:13
What is your definition of changing the world?

If an image can change the life of one person, is that not changing the world?

Chaser
04-02-2007, 18:30
What is your definition of changing the world?

If an image can change the life of one person, is that not changing the world?


I was using a definition of change the world all at once for the sake of conversation...but I firmly believe that change is incremental and agree with you completely.

PetarDima
04-02-2007, 23:29
No
I think that a man can change himself - that is everyday challenge.
Photography is involved in that process :angel:

pvdhaar
04-02-2007, 23:47
Abu Ghairab photos did change the world, especially the mid East and the US. Just as the World Trade Center photos of people jumping changed the US.

What is most interesting to me is the photos were done by 'amateurs' not professionals.
Not surprising with the current trend of 'embedded' photo-journalism..

Pherdinand
04-03-2007, 01:11
Jan, it seems that we have different understanding of what "changing the world" means. Or even "the world" itself, maybe.

Pherdinand
04-03-2007, 01:15
But back to your original examples, can you pls explain me how the ABu Ghraib photos CHANGED the WORLD? And how the images of people jumping from the twin towers did?
Aside of the life of a few people closely involved, I don't think these images changed anything about the world.

[Please anybody - i don't intend to start any political argueing on the subject. Just a preventive note.]

Avotius
04-03-2007, 01:17
No, I dont think photos can change the world, they can show a few people some things maybe they didnt know about or something like that but people are usually too lazy or self centered to even bother to do anything and those that do are usually looked down upon by those with too much time on their hands. Remember that lady that staked out in front of Bush's ranch of all that time, guess what, in the end it didnt mater, Bush is still in power, nearly everyone hates him (Especially here in china...) and thats the end of that.

Look how tame we all have become.

mfunnell
04-03-2007, 01:35
Aside of the life of a few people closely involved, I don't think these images changed anything about the world.I'm not sure what you want for "changing the world". Regarding the prison photos, many people changed their attitudes about the conduct of the war in Iraq as a result of viewing those photos and understanding the story behind them. (The impact of the September 11 photos seems, to me, too difficult to disentangle from many other aspects of those events.)

These changed attitudes are widely believed to have contributed to actual political changes. If that doesn't meet your requirements, what would?

...Mike

MartinP
04-03-2007, 02:09
When we have all mentioned the "story" told by a photograph, I am reminded of what Winogrand mentioned in the film-clip linked in another thread recently.

To paraphrase, a photo doesn't tell a story - it is just showing how some objects appeared at a particular moment.

I suppose he meant that the "story" aspect is added by the mental baggage of the viewer. The same picture can "mean" different - even opposite - things, or nothing, depending on what the viewer already "knows".

It would be a very remarkable picture that transcended this. Can anyone recall seeing such a still-picture ? Bearing in mind that the world is bigger than North America and Europe, of course.

VinceC
04-03-2007, 02:24
>>But back to your original examples, can you pls explain me how the ABu Ghraib photos CHANGED the WORLD? And how the images of people jumping from the twin towers did?<<

If there had been no images of people jumping from the World Trade Center, there would have been no Abu Ghraib abuses to photograph. The imagery surrounding the World Trade Center created a U.S. mood of vengeance.

migtex
04-03-2007, 02:35
"We don't change the world, we just photograph it".. now I got to find what photographer said that...

Rob Skeoch
04-03-2007, 09:35
I don't think the photos of people jumping from the world trade centre moved the people in power to start the war. I think it was the attack that moved them. If the 911 attack had happened at night and just as many died I think the war would have happened the same... even without the photos.

To Chaser.....
Your right, the only reason I said people should become nurses is because of my time with Doctors Without Borders... we always needed more nurses and fewer photographers.

VinceC
04-03-2007, 10:58
>> I think it was the attack that moved them.<<

But the attack was defined, to the public outside of New York City, as a kaleidescopic series fo iconic images. Not a single photograph or series of photographs, but a multimedia experience. The planes crashing. The towers aflame. People jumping. The towers collapsing. The wall of smoke and rubble. The strange reverence of iconic photos taken at Ground Zero, to include the firemen raising a flag against gray rubble which became the first-ever U.S. postage stamp to depict people who are still alive.

In the case of Abu Ghraib, there had been a number of public reports over several months of abuse against Iraqis in U.S. custody. It took the photographs to define the nature of this abuse and make the public take notice.

1dave
04-03-2007, 11:06
I believe that still images have the power to change man's mind in so many different ways; and that can change the world. Photojournalism is nowhere near dead, and still have a large role to play in affairs, and opinion forming.

Calvin
04-05-2007, 02:58
Photos taken by journalists in every corner of the world do send messages to us, esp when you are not living on the other side of the world. No matter which format it gonna be, like newspaper, online posting ... a picture is worth more than thousand words!

Pablito
04-05-2007, 04:39
Photojournalism is moving away from the still image. In papers all over the country, photographers are being issued cameras that caputure motion and sound. Yeah, video cameras capable of high-rez still images. The priority is the web, not the paper.

I've yet to hear a photojournalist working today for a major media outlet say he/she believes their work can be the principal factor in changing anyone's mind about anything.

On the other hand, what of the legacy of Lewis Hine? His work was a major contributor to the creation of child labor laws in the USA.

There is no yes or no answer, only a sea of in-between.

VinceC
04-05-2007, 04:49
>>On the other hand, what of the legacy of Lewis Hine? His work was a major contributor to the creation of child labor laws in the USA<<

Lewis Hine did not work for a commercial news agency. He was employed by a child advocacy nonprofit group chartered by U.S. Congress. He was what Americans call a "lobbyist" -- someone whose job is to influence Congress to pass laws on behalf of an interest group, in this case the rights of children.

Rob Skeoch
04-06-2007, 16:40
It's true about papers moving into video.... I would say every major paper in the west is making the shift. At the dailly I work picturedesk shifts at we had no budget this year for new still gear but all the video we could use. I even shot a video of a road race the other day for the papers web.
We always had tight budgets for still photo freelance but there is no limit to the web budget as papers try to figure it out.
-Rob Skeoch