By: Ron B. Wilson
One thing alone has the power to change the world: Photography. Although the idea of creating an image had been around for many years, it wasn’t until 1827 that Joseph Niepce used his camera obscura to capture the first photograph. Since that time, the great potential of photography has grown, and photographers have helped show the human race who we are. Robert Draper wrote in his 2013 article for National Geographic, “Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change. Their images are proof that photography matters—now more than ever”. Whether the pictures were taken by a portrait photographer as if to see ourselves in a mirror, or taken by a wartime photojournalist depicting the human race in it’s most vulnerable state, the realism in photography connects us like no other medium.”Through photographs, readers of picture weeklies became more conscious of the immensity of human resources and of the varied forms of social conduct in remote places of the globe, even though these cultures ordinarily were seen from the point of view of Western capitalist society”, Naomi Rosenblum wrote in her book A World History of Photography. I believe that Photography has the power to change the world by telling stories, documenting history, and influencing people to be more engaged with global events.
With the recent worldwide popularity of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and digital cameras, it’s important to take a brief look at the history of how photography began to realize the importance of where it has taken us, and how photography’s power influences humanity on a daily basis. Starting with camera lucida, through the daguerreotype, up to the latest in digital image making and computer manipulation, technology in photography has seriously changed throughout its nearly 200-year history, as correctly explained and beautifully illustrated in A World History of Photography, by Rosenblum. Exploring the different roles that photography has played in the communication of ideas in her book, Rosenblum devotes particular attention to many genres of photography such as portraiture, advertising, and photojournalism, and to the camera as a means artistic expression as well. The gathering of these material proves that being able to “stop time” with the click of the shutter is one of the greatest tools we have available today. “Today photography has become a global cacophony of freeze-frames. Millions of pictures are uploaded every minute. Correspondingly, everyone is a subject, and knows it—any day now we will be adding the unguarded moment to the endangered species list. It’s important that professionals such as National Geographic’s photographers continue to stand out. The very best of their images remind us that a photograph has the power to do infinitely more than just document. It can transport us to unseen worlds”, writes Robert Draper in his National Geographic article, The Power of Photography. I truly believe that photography will continue to evolve in the future, and it will always play a central part in how history will be told, for as long as we humans roam the earth.
The taking, editing, and presenting of news-worthy material for publication that employs images in order to tell a story, known as photojournalism, still has the power to influence people by depicting the real world, although things in the industry are changing rapidly in the digital age. Never before in history had photography been such an integral part of world events as it was during World War II; pioneering photojournalists on the front lines gave the world back home a firsthand glance into reality. In September 1939, the famous photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. During the battle of France in June 1940, he was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labor under the Nazis. Through his photography, the phrase “The Decisive Moment” was created, and his work from that period not only showed the world in a new way but helped mold political policies to global leaders. Cartier-Bresson said, “As photojournalists, we supply information to a world that is overwhelmed with preoccupations and full of people who need the company of images….We pass judgment on what we see, and this involves an enormous responsibility”. A modern photojournalist James Nachtwey, similar to Cartier-Bresson in style, continues to stretch the reach of photography into current times. Nachtwey has documented the world from Northern Ireland to Africa and could see The Twin Towers from his home in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001. He knew, as soon as the smoke started billowing, that Al Qaida, the guests of the Taliban, were responsible. “One of the final great battles of the 20th century set the stage for all the battles of the 21st century. Everyone paid attention to 9/11 but, at the time, no-one paid that much attention to Kabul. That’s why we do what we do”, Nachtwey told Tom Seymour of the British Journal of Photography for the article “James Nachtwey – The Improviser”. David Rohde wrote in his 2013 article Pictures That Change History: Why the World Needs Photojournalists for the online website The Atlantic, “Despite the billions of cell phone images posted on Facebook and Flickr, the vast majority of iconic photographs capturing major events are taken by professional photographers. Nine of the 10 images in Time magazine’s “Top 10 Photos of 2013,” for example, were taken by professional photographers”.
Imagery can stimulate people’s opinion, and help alter the course of history; photography assisted in gaining support for the struggle for civil rights in the United States, changed views against the Vietnam War, and helped end apartheid in South Africa. “It is that potential to change the world that motivates many photojournalists to pursue their work, despite financial insecurity, and despite the hardship and danger in many cases. But it is increasingly difficult to make a difference as a photojournalist. Images have proliferated, audiences have fragmented and also grown fatigued of images of disaster and suffering, and news magazines no longer provide the financial support and exposure for photojournalism that they once did”, wrote David Walker in his 2014 article “Can Photography Affect Change?” for the well-respected magazine Photo District News. Many people argue that photojournalism’s best days are in the past, such as Neil Burgess former head of Magnum Photos wrote on this new company’s website, “We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether. Apart from a few old dinosaurs whose contracts are so long and retirement so close that it’s cheaper to keep them on, there is no journalism organization funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so-called news organizations”. I honestly believe that although times are indeed changing in the world of photography, and it may just take a few more years for the new breed of image makers to regain their standing in the industry. There is nothing quite like the awesomeness of capturing a moment and that will never be replaced.
I do believe that photography has the power to change the world by telling stories, documenting history, and influencing people to be more engaged with global events. The difference is now that instead of waiting for a weekly magazine such as Time or Life to hit newsstands to see something new happening in the world, it’s just a matter of logging into Instagram on your phone and typing hashtag “best newsworthy photos of the day” to discover some fresh glimpse into world events. “Nothing can replace the stories many photographers, covering issues of public health, the environment, economic and social justice and other issues can provide the world”, said Walker in his Photo District News article. I know that there will always be a need for professional photographers in the world to bring about change and influence society. I personally find it exciting that so many people are budding photographers now with their smartphones, and eager to share their experiences with an ever-evolving online audience. In the end, Draper said it best, “A National Geographic photographer is the personification of worldliness, the witness to all earthly beauty, the occupant of everybody’s dream job”. This is what I know for sure.
Cartier-Bresson, H., Galassi P., Delpire R., and Clair J., (2003) The Man, the Image and the World. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.
Draper, R., (2013, June). The Power of Photography; Photography at 125. National Geographic, Washington, DC.
Rosenblum, N., (2008) A World History of Photography 4th Edition. New York, NY: Abbeville Press Publishers.
CHAPTER 8, Documentation: The Social scene Illuminating Injustice: The camera and social issues
Rode, D., (2013). Pictures That Change History: Why the World Needs Photojournalists. Washington, DC.
Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/pictures-that-change-history- why-the-world-needs-photojournalists/282498/
Seymour T., (2015). James Nachtwey – The Improviser. London, UK.
Retrieved from: http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/04/james-nachtwey-war-reporter-photography/
Walker, D., (2014, October). Can Photography Affect Change? Photo District New Magazine. New York, NY.