Can photography contribute to political and social change?

Truls Lie
Truls Lie
Published date: October 20, 2018

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

Many of u remembers Kevin Carter’s photo of the vulture waiting by the side of a starved child during the 1994 famine in South Sudan, a haunting image. Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his shot – but took his own life just a couple of months later. In is suicide note he wrote: « I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen…»

Have we ourselves become vultures, with an insatiable hunger for the misery of others? Sontag dubs us «image junkies»: We are craving for beauty, surface and images of bodies has an erotic intensity. 40 years ago, long before smartphones and Instagram, she wrote: Have we come to a point where our experiences are only counted as valid if we capture them in a snapshot?

In our culture of likes/dislikes, being sensitive to the context of an image is exeedingly important: If you see a picture of a crowd lifting their cameras, you need to know if it’s from a concert – or a public execution in Teheran. Context is exactly what Kaja Scherven Mollerin searched for in an article from the new Norwegian journal Bilder (Pictures): She interprets a picture of Sontag, taken by the photographer-girlfriend Annie Leibovitz. In the picture we see Sontag scaling the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, seemingly unaware that her image is being captured. In her interpretation Mollerin not only connects the picture with Sontag’s own novel The Volcano Lover, where Sontag follows a historical path. She also connects it with the myth of Eurydice, brought back from the realm of the dead – by Orpheus who had sworn not to turn – an oath once broken, would send her back to Hades forever. Sontag was repeatedly haunted by cancer, which would finally claim her life – placing Leibowitz’ picture in a new dimension of dizzying proportions. A successful picture carries within it what was but is no more – life itself in its essence, in its absolute transience. Rather than consuming snapshots of the moment, we can expand our understanding of what is absent and hidden behind the presence of the image.

“Annie Liebovitz’s pseudo-religious storyboarding of Sontag’s death with Sontag’s blessing.”

The Modern Times Review will dedicate more space to photography

In 1991, the world-renowned Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado was criticized in the New Yorker for estheticizing suffering. Ingrid Sischy writes: «beautifying human tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity towards the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it.» Others describe Salgado as being far better than sloppier colleagues who make human suffering into a commodity – a source of morbid well-being. Many contemporary photographers merely «pop by» harrowing and bloody events, maybe even humiliating the victims rather than like Salgado encouraging solidarity, respect and action. Carter, for instance, merely whisked away the vulture before hopping on a plane and getting out.

Sebastião Salgado

The Modern Times Review will dedicate more space to photography. We want form and content – art and politics – to communicate. We don’t identify with orthodox conservatives who refuse politics a role in art, nor with dogmatic radicals who refuse art a role in politics.

Documentary photography and films about the suffering of others must not end up being «only about the others» and thus «fortunately not us». If we want to see what is behind the faces presented to us by Lange, Salgado, Carter and Winship, our reading of these images must go beyond mere sentimental humanism.

Modern Times Review