Thinking Images v.24: Lu Guang’s activist photography


What is the power of photography?

In the abstract, that is an impossible question to answer. There are many general claims about photography being able to ‘change the world’, but when it comes to evidence for such arguments, we know surprisingly little about how photographs actually work. There are clearly moments in which images can induce action. With Lu Guang’s photography, we can appreciate the impact some projects can have in some circumstances.

Lecturing in Beijing recently as part of the BFSU/Bolton MA in International Multimedia Journalism, Lu Guang discussed his long-term investigation of pollution in China, which he began in 2005. A self-funded freelancer, Lu Guang has won international recognition for his work in the form of World Press Photo awards, the 2009 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the 2010 National Geographic photography grant. As the Lens blog noted, Lu Guang’s affinity with Eugene Smith is apparent in his commitment to investigate and expose the consequences of rampant industrialisation.

Lu Guang’s 2003 portraits from the AIDS village in Henan are as graphic and unvarnished as any images you will ever see. They had a dramatic impact in China, forcing local and regional authorities to provide the care and treatment they had previously refused. In his lecture, Lu Guang described how his current work on pollution, which is equally direct and to the point, offering pictures as evidence, is also prompting remedial action at local and regional levels.

That photography can move authorities in a political system well known for its desire to control information is remarkable. That someone like Lu Guang, even when commissioned by a western NGO like Greenpeace, can work effectively in China challenges the external perception of a system constantly covering crises up. Lu Guang spoke candidly of the harassment he faces while working, so the risks he take should not be underestimated. But he made a fascinating observation – if he was revealing something specific and unknown to particular authorities, Lu Guang felt he could carry on and overcome the obstacles in his path. While his disclosures are uncomfortable to profiteers, the political authorities sometimes either tolerate or encourage that discomfort.

Having spent a fair amount of time in China over the last eighteen months and more, I have been constantly struck by the large number of indigenous journalists and photographers whose daily work manifests an unflinching commitment to critical investigation regardless of the consequences. I think we have a lot to learn from the likes of Lu Guang.

Workers at a lime kiln in the Heilonggui Industrial District in Inner Mongolia. The woman on the left is wearing two scarves, a red one to protect her eyes, a grey one to cover her mask. Photo: Courtesy of Lu Guang, 22 March 2007.

Top photo: The sewage plant of the Fluorine Industrial Park discharges its untreated waste into the riverbed of the Yangtze River through a 1,500-meter-long pipeline. Changshu City, Jiangsu province. Courtesy of Lu Guang, 11 June 2009.


4 Responses to “Thinking Images v.24: Lu Guang’s activist photography”

  1. Robert Jon Godden (@RightsExposure)

    Hi David. Always a fan of your posts. Can’t help but feel this one needs teasing out a bit more though.

    ‘There are many general claims about WRITING being able to ‘change the world’, but when it comes to evidence for such arguments, we know surprisingly little about how WRITING actually works’.

    You get the idea. At the risk of over simplifying things, photos like those taken by Lu Guang – which could be called ‘evidential’ (and fit into a broader ‘witnessing’ tactic to shame those in power to act) – work because they show people something they may not have been aware of (or if they were aware, may not have seen). If that knowledge – crucially including its visual impact – concerns them, and they have an outlet, they may act. I guess things become a little less clear regarding what types of images best ‘induce people to action’ – but then I feel we get into a ‘how long is a piece of string’ discussion that is dependent on your message, audience, context etc.

    More specifically, in regards to China – I am not clear what you mean by this statement – ‘That photography can move authorities in a political system well known for its desire to control information is remarkable.’ If I understand correctly, surely that desire for information control is exactly why such photos have power – if you have failed to censor them then you need to react to them. Actually, my impression is that the central authorities in China display much more flexibility in regard to environmental activism than political, partly as it is less threatening to their maintenance of power, but also as it helps them enforce environmental regulations that provintial authorities may be ignoring. The recent protests in Dalian over a chemical plant are interesting in this regard. Like most places, there are complex, often competing interests at work – no authoritarian monolithic government. Crises are constantly covered up, but information systems leak and power games mean officials who are out of favour or have more powerful enemies may be targeted or sacrificed.

    • davidc7

      Thanks for the response Rob. Yes, much to be developed around these thoughts, because specifying the power relations and impact of images is very difficult. The substitution of ‘writing’ in the sentence indeed makes the good point that these are questions we regularly ask of pictures, but less so of other forms of representation.

      The point re China was meant to be fairly simple…people outside the country with little experience of the media inside tend to assume, I’ve found, that any form of critical project is not possible, so they are surprised to find the likes of Lu Guang at work despite the challenges. Your understanding is clearly greater, and the Dalian example – which Lu Guang also photographed – is a good example.

  2. Paul Menya

    Hello David Campbell, i find this web entertaining, interesting and moving. Good stuff

  3. Friday 9 December 2011

    […] Fair names new Photography Director: Judith Puckett-RinellaDavid Campbell: Thinking Images v.24: Lu Guang’s activist photographyCNN Photo blog: Iraqi agency fosters photojournalismRhona Wise (EPA): Read it or don’t read […]


Leave a Reply