Photojournalism and change: voices of humility

March 23, 2012 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

How should we think about the contribution photojournalism might make to the task of social change?

Reflecting on the Kony2012 phenomenon I concluded with observations about the difficulty of specifying how political change comes about and our potential contribution to it.

Thinking more about this, I recalled videos in which two of the best photographers of our time reflected on the relationship of their work to activism. They warrant another view for the important insights they made.

In Sebastiao Salgado: The Photographer as Activist, a 2004 event at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ken Light and Fred Ritchin converse with Salgado about the relationship between his work and the injustices he has portrayed. This is a 90 minute film that is worth watching in its entirety, but I have extracted here a crucial 7 minute segment where they address the issue of activism directly:

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This clip begins with Light asking Ritchin about the activism in Salgado’s work. Ritchin contrasts Salgado’s approach to the conventional desire of photographers to be witnesses who make things visible, and details the novelty (at least in 2004) of people working in alliance with NGOs. Then – contrary to the video’s title – Salgado in fact declares he is not an activist. Not because he doesn’t want his work to effect change, but because he has a complex understanding of the relationship between his work and activism. His description of photography as only a small slice in the overall dynamic of activism that might produce change is significant for its realistic modesty. It’s well worth watching and thinking about.

In a 2010 video produced by the Open Society Institute, Susan Meiselas talks about photography as something which has huge potential to expand the circle of understanding. This is another 7 minutes well worth your time, even if you’ve seen it before:

Meiselas’ thoughtful articulation of her approach chimes with Salgado’s humility. She understands photography as giving people an opportunity to respond, offering a bridge they can possibly cross, creating the possibility of connecting and engaging. “Can we really point to things that have changed because photographs were made?,” she asks. “This is the dilemma, the challenge and the hope.”

That Meiselas answers her question with a cautious desire rather than a definitive declaration is hugely significant. As she articulates so well, the power of the image is all about potential rather than certainty, and that potential depends upon associations, collaborations and relationships through which images might have additional lives.

I think we should follow the lead of Salgado and Meiselas and reset our expectations of what photography, especially photojournalism, can do in the face of global challenges. If we persist with the flawed idea that somehow there is a clear, linear, causal linkage between information, knowledge and action we are only going to be frustrated. And it is that frustration, in my view, which animates myths like compassion fatigue. When we believe (generally without evidence) that making things visible automatically changes the world, and the world doesn’t change instantly, we foster a resentment against either image makers or their audience. What we need is a more complex understanding of how change evolves and a more humble appreciation of how we might contribute, even as those contributions are ever more urgently needed.

7 Responses to “Photojournalism and change: voices of humility”

  1. On my phone in small town in Nepal so will be brief. I think it is misleading to say that the link between info knowledge and action is flawed. Especially generally rather than just for the role of photography. I agree that images work on many levels in the path to social change and that we should explore those more. I think NGOs give far to little attention to the longer term role of images informing people in a nuanced way about issues so they can engage in meaningful and constructive ways. But let’s not ignore the basics when they work. Rob

    • Rob, the argument does not deny any link between knowledge and action. It says that the assumption of “a clear, linear, causal linkage between information, knowledge and action is flawed.” It is the idea of an automatic and unproblematic relationship that I am contesting, and as is clear from the Salgado video, I’m not alone in that.

  2. Hi david I actually agree with you, in that these relationships are sometimes complex and we need to understand them better. However, I don’t think this is always the case. Sometimes things are rather linear, or at least linear enough for activists to work as if things are. So, in that sense i would argue it is not flawed, it would just be flawed to always assime this is the case. There are psychological and case studies to back both sides of this arguement, including those directly related to donating to charity. But focussing on your point, the sad truth is few decision makers in NGOs and funders are willing to spend time and money exploring these complexities. Finite resources dont encourage peoplle to take riskss Maybe what we need is a visual activist think tank? R&D for NGOs.

  3. Sebastiao Salgado on the differences between showing is work in the US vs Brasil:
    “Sometimes I am very upset because people look at my work as more like an art object. And they are not, they are documents to provoke a discussion, to provoke a debate … now documentary photography has become a kind of part of the fine arts and they must be shown like this. And I believe that is the difference in the problem for the person living the problem, they see this as a document to provoke a discussion, provoke a debate, and I believe that is a little bit different … you are living the problem, you are inside the problem. The debate is the debate of the people that are inside what they are living. It’s completely different than to show in a country where the debate is a little bit far away.”

  4. Last week, Terry Gross had a conversation with NY Times East Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman about his reporting on the famine in Somalia – http://www.npr.org/2012/04/04/149390748/jeffrey-gettleman-on-reporting-somalias-crisis
    Gettleman was about to receive Polk award for his coverage. Part of the discussion focused on the photograph of starving child in Mogadishu, taken by Tyler Hicks, which was -according to Gettleman – intended to provoke a reaction, be disturbing, call on others to act so that, as he says in the interview, _the risks that he takes with his life while reporting from Africa are not in vain_.
    The interview is worth listening to in its entirety because it contains all the tropes of us-centered reporting while ostensibly focusing on the misery of others: much of the interview is about Gettleman’s emotions, risks, sacrifices, integrity, ability to act/move around in dangerous lands and – yes – successful maintaining of distance from those that he is reporting about (allowing us – listeners and readers – to view Gettleman as our perfect surrogate in Somalia/East Africa). Even a week after I first heard the interview, I cannot but wonder why it never crossed Gettleman’s mind – or his photographer’s – that they would have never taken a photograph of a white body in such distress as the child in Mogadishu, nor would have any editor placed such white suffering on the cover of the New York Times. Is commensurability of the risks taken by a reporter and actions taken by his readership so desirable to obliterate regards for dignity?

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