Can images change the world we live in?
This great question can haunt those who make documentary photography, those who find spaces, places and communities in the world that need help or global support, and those who say that what is happening can’t happen in an ethical and civilized society.
Lewis Hine, one of many children working in California cotton mills. 1908
If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.
One of the fundamental characteristics of photography from its origin is to be a witness and proof of reality. It captures the beauty of what we see, and expresses what we feel, but it is also a tool for reporting or making visible.
Photographs that, without pretending to be aesthetic, are witnesses of realities that, by existing and being visible, have an emotional and, therefore, social impact. There is no change without emotion.
Giséle Freund. Simone de Beauvoir, the day of the Prix Goncourt, next to a window writing. Paris. 1954
The importance of photography lies not only in the fact that it is a creation, but above all in the fact that it is one of the most effective means of shaping our ideas and influencing our behavior.
To interpret an image, it is necessary to know the culture that sustains it and the historical moment to which it belongs, all steeped in personal beliefs. An image doesn’t mean the same for every human being, in different historical moments or cultures; it is never reality itself, even if it is related to it. We can see it in the development of the word: “image” comes from the Greek eikon, which means visual representation which has a certain similarity to the object it represents. Later, the Latin root imago was defined as a figure, shadow or imitation.
Both words, eikon e imago, allude to the idea of representation and imitation.
Every image is polysemic, it implies a floating chain of meanings.
People move in an increasingly visual environment, they call it a civilization of images. Today not only the person who is dedicated to documentary photography builds images, everyone takes photos. The most recent proof is the tremendous rise of social networks like Instagram where the word goes to the background or disappears.
We think, consume and produce images compulsively and automatically. Taking a photo is easier than creating a sentence. The images are consumed and shared without delay; most of the time its conservation depends on the rush, or on the storage capacity of the mobile phone. Every movement we make, every trip, wink or activity becomes a fleeting image like pronouncing a word. We are in the era of Post-photography as defined by Fontcuberta. We document our own lives.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.
Now photography is, more than ever throughout its history, a testimony of social, political, cultural and personal moments. It is very difficult to know how many images we can see (and create) in a single day: online, on social networks, on television, on billboards, in magazines…
We know that creating an image and being in front of it, has enormous pedagogical potential, therefore, visual literacy involves educating in two lines of work:
1. Educate in language and visual culture as training to develop a critical and reflective reading of what we are looking at, without forgetting the polysemy of the image.
2. Educate in photographic expression as a tool to know the environment and oneself, as a strategy to tell the world from one’s own authenticity and truth. Because when we create an image with our mobile and share it, we are not only representing what we see, but we are building an image with everything we are.
If we are responsible for the images we produce and how we interpret them, what can photography do for the society we inhabit?
Think about this question: what can photography do for you?
Photography expresses where the word doesn’t reach, shows reality from one’s own perspective and enriches the self-concept. Photography is today a logbook of each one’s life, it builds the image of the personal world, but also of the human world in general, since its documentary nature. Although it shows the world of a particular person, it describes events, traditions and places, thus becoming a collective visual memory.
The image’s individual and collective, direct and indirect uses should be the object of study. An extraordinary example is the work «The Transforming Image. The Power of a Photograph for Social Change: Aylan’s Death».
Gabriele Galimberti. Bethsaida, 4. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 2013
In this sense, the person who takes photographs has a great social responsibility since his capacity to represent what happens gives him the power to choose what he leaves inside and outside the frame, deciding which photograph and which way.
We can build images that generate a non-existent or distorted reality of the facts, show what is of social or political interest, build realities through digital manipulation or change the context in which they were obtained. Therefore, as spectators, we must look carefully and critically.
Nick Ut. The terror of war. 1973
An image can expose the worst part of the world, and even stop wars, as in the case of Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut, who captured the image of children fleeing a bombing by the US military in Vietnam. The image mobilized public opinion.
Considering the media power of social networks, anyone can decide what to publish. The dissemination of images is no longer the monopoly of some media. The images that were totally private a few years ago and were part of the family album go to the public sphere. The camera and the mobile phone are the instruments for constructing images, often automatic and compulsive.
Poses. Yolanda Domiguez.
Photography becomes a resource to get to know and be known, but it can also lead to the creation of stereotypical forms of representation in order to build idyllic identities or create unethical or false realities.
The visual education of citizens is a key to constructing ethical, creative and cultural uses of images, especially if we focus on to the most vulnerable people, childhood and adolescence. Only in this way can photography be a source of cultural heritage, understood as UNESCO points out:
The cultural heritage includes works of its artists, architects, musicians, writers and scholars, as well as the anonymous creations, arising from the popular soul, and the set of values that give meaning to life, that is, the material works and no materials that express the creativity of people; language, rites, beliefs, historical places and monuments, literature, works of art, archives and libraries. (UNESCO, 1982: 3)
Cristina Garcia Rodero. Cruz de mayo. Berrocal, Huelva. 1998
Thus, photography can become a visual memory of people, a tool that defines what a group, an institution, or an era is like and a treasure for understanding the stories of families and cultures.
In this sense, I show you two projects created during the global Covid – 19 lockdown:
1. CovidPhotoDiaries is a project promoted by 8 Spanish photojournalists that document, in different parts of the country and on a daily basis, the state of alarm decreed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How is life in confinement? What is the new everyday life? We discovered it through the photographers Anna Surinyach, Isabel Permuy, Susana Girón and Judith Prat and the photographers José Colón, Manu Brabo, Javier Fergo and Olmo Calvo.
The project has published images captured at home or in the city daily on Instagram since March 17, 2020, as a field diary.
“To the undoubted relevance of documenting the day-to-day life of this health alert and its consequences for the population, is added the enormous value that this visual, plural and broad testimony will have when everything is finished. It will be the memory of what happened to us these days,” affirms the photographic collective. It aims to become a graphic memory of the pandemic in Spain and its effects on people’s lives.
Covid Latam. 9 photographers, seeking a social change. Showing personal daily life, individual storytellers going global.
Both projects solve, from purely personal points of view, global interests and experiences. Individual photographs that are part of the collective memory of humanity, made with meaning and sensitivity to denounce, make visible and give light to what humanity must take care of.
Here, the social function of photography is clear; we must take care of the planet we live on and everything it contains. Incorporating ethical value is fundamental and if we take it to its maximum expression we can define it as follows:
Photography as a social function is a discipline that promotes change and social development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. The principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversity (…) involve people and structures to face life’s challenges and increase well-being.
Definition based on the definition of Social Work of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Social Workers and the Board of the International Association of Schools of Social Work.
If we use photography in our daily lives, but we know it is memory, art and cultural heritage, we may be more responsible for the images we produce. Only in that moment they will be the tool to change the world.
Thank you for being there.