Can photography contribute to political and social change?

This is the aim of the Barbican Art Gallery in London, exhibiting «artistic responses to topics like feminism, climate change and human rights […] voices that are underrepresented in current art.» The double exhibit The Art of Change currently shows pictures by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and  Vanessa Winship (born 1960) –both focusing on poverty and working-class people.

Documentary photography can undoubtedly be problematic. Lange’s iconic picture of Florence Thompson during the depression-era in the United States – the most reproduced picture in its time – is an example. The Cherokee woman sitting there with her haggard but resolute face, destitute in a refugee camp with her kids, said at the age of 75 in 1978: «This portrait of me can be seen all over the world, but I never got a dime for it.» Lange’s statement in her diary about the woman in the portrait, makes for a stark contrast: «She looked like she understood that my pictures could help her, and that’s why she helped me. There was a kind of balance between us.»

The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California. The artifact pictured is a digital scan of a copy print made from Dorothea Lange’s personal print and negative collection. Digitized for the Oakland Museum of California Museum Technology Initiative for Educational Outreach, July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011.

The significance of critical and documentary photography has changed through time. As the critic Susan Sontag stated in On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) it invites «attention and reflection». But Sontag also describes how photographs would make her embittered – not only because the documented tragedies brought forth feelings of despair and rage, but also since the pictures failed to spur political action. When sentiments of injustice well up, we also sense our own impotence – the full extent of our political paralysis. Sontag’s falls victim to a double frustration: She feels guilty towards those who suffer, but also exasperation with her self-absorbed distractedness. As a western intellectual she does effectively nothing to ease the suffering of other people.

Susan Sontag

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