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photography Thinking Images

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.