Week Nine – Informing Contexts: Responses and Responsibilities

I still believe photographs can provoke change; if they are seen. If I didn’t, I don’t think I’d want to be a photographer.

For me this does not necessarily mean the viewing of distressing images – although as a former journalist I understand the struggle around whether or not to share such pictures. Szarkowski suggested that he didn’t think that editors should feel an obligation to print every “bloody ” picture because, “After a while people get inured to the suffering in the photograph and that is not good for anyone.  In that sense, each successive image has less impact than the one that came before it”.1

But each image will have an effect on those who view it even if it is minimal; it may be more powerful for some than others.

Susie Linfield asked: “Try to imagine, if only for a moment, what your intellectual, political and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph.”2

In relation to war photographs, yes, over time we have perhaps become desensitised to its drama and horror. I wanted to be a war photographer when at school but was advised to “get a proper job”. Considering how the “war to end all wars” didn’t do that, I would have found continual work – but as we do now access such a deluge of images of fighting are we desensitised due to the amount of images or more because we simply do not want to acknowledge our own stupidity as a species? And would we be worse off if photography had not been invented and used as a tool to inform?

Talking of his images of 9/11, Meyerowitz said he felt if there was no photographic record allowed then it was history being erased. History without fact or provable research is fable, myth, legend. It is the assumption of what things were like from the fragments we can piece together. Photography, regardless of its ability to be manipulated/manipulate has given us a means of factual representation and the ability to discover visually.

Sontag has said that atrocious images, even though they can not “encompass all the reality of a people’s agony” that they still provide a positive function.  “The image says: keep these events in your memory”.3 And for me, the still image provides moments for reflection over film footage, simply because they can be observed on your own terms.

There are a number of images that I recall from a photographic perspective: Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl; Jeff Widener’s Tianamen Square protesting man; Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution etc. but for me the photos that stick in my mind tend to relate to animal cruelty and environmental disasters.

Some photographers have taken a more ‘aesthetic’ approach to human horrors.

©Sabastiao Salgado
©Sebastiao Salgado

Salgado’s4 images appear beautiful despite the commentary they contain, and for this he has garnered much criticism, particularly in Ingrid Sischy’s5 New Yorker article Good Intentions where she states that the “beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity towards the experience they reveal”. But I feel that within his style there lies a powerful tug on the emotions. Just because an image does not holler they can still provoke a response. Being quiet does not mean being without a voice. Salgado’s pictures above, taken at the gold mines of Serra Pelada in Brazil, for me eloquently portray the daily grind, with the top image making me feel as if the man leaning on the pole is melancholy and perhaps despairing of this existence, while the bottom image is full of tension as a miner and military police officer confront each other. If I had never seen these images, I would probably never know about this story. I can only assume, and hope, that photojournalists avoid the staging of their pictures (not always the case such as Khaled Al Sabbah whose image of a young girl following the Brussels attack in 2016 was shown to be directed by him6;).

But what is it within a picture that can prompt change. With Salgado he has himself struggled with what he witnesses and in relation to Genesis said “And then we can understand what we must preserve”7; which is similar to Ansel Adam’s take on showing the pristine to show what it is we must care for. 

My own work looks at topics relating to the human impact on our planet. I have always said I do not feel the need to show this in an in your face way. That my images will stimulate conversations and considerations that provide the viewer with the potential to make changes if necessary in their own lives. Comfortable contemplation can create a compelling motivation.

Nick Brandt’s work Inherit the Dust uses metaphor’s for loss by implanting huge images of African animals in the places they used to roam. My current exhibition 6000 Flowers (Farm for AONBees pollinator support project) for Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Environment and Sustainability Institute combined Victorian botanical drawings of flowers that currently do not grow in our farming landscape with real rural photos. Its aim is to act as a metaphor of what we need but do not currently have and how science and agriculture can work together to support bumblebees in the county, which in turn supports food production. They are not as in your face as Brandt’s images but still have the potential to raise questions and encourage action.

Whether you are spurred to take action by viewing an image, pictures and text, or a moving image is down to your own interests in the subject being shown. Sometimes people have such a fixed mindset on an issue that no amount of words or picture will ever create the response you would like your photograph to instil. But by continually sharing the story you want to tell through your photographs you do not have to give up that it may well eventually have the desired effect on the person most likely to have never changed. And that can be either with work that is more punchy or work that may seem, at first glance, more genteel.


1: Carr, David (2003) ‘A Nation at War: Bringing Combat Home:  Telling war’s deadly story at just enough distance in The New York Times (7th April 2003)[WWW] https://goo.gl/l6r6R7

2: Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography & Political Violence Chicago: University of Chicago Press

3: Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others London: Penguin

4: Salgado, Sebastiao  – https://iconicphotos.org/?s=salgado (accessed March 31, 2017)

5: Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991)

6: https://petapixel.com/2016/03/24/photojournalist-caught-posing-girl-brussels-memorial/ (accessed April 1, 2017)

7: Hattenstone, Simon ) ‘In the Beginning’ in The Guardian (11th September 2004) [WWW] https://goo.gl/hfKHTb