Q: Do you think the power and influence of the photograph is overstated?
‘Still’ photography is just one of many media that impact social discourse, especially in an era of video and social media, where we are all continuously ‘bombarded’ with imagery in huge quantities (and variable quality).
In many ways, CNN’s coverage of the First Gulf War was the first ”video war”. Who can forget waiting for Scud missiles to attack Israel with poison gas, in real time – even though it didn’t actually happen? The coverage reinforced the public sense of dread, and underpinned the claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the cause célèbre for the war.
On the other hand, just because a photograph is well-shot still and (temporarily) newsworthy, doesn’t make it an ‘iconic image’ with the power to globally impact public perception or personal emotion. So, what is an iconic image?
I don’t think there is any one fixed description, though it could be.
- a single, famous, well-established and well known image (Steve McCurry ‘Afghan Girl’, 1984
- an image representing an artist’s style (Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘Behind the Gare St Lazare’, 1932)
- a famous, well-established series (Don McCullin ‘Biafra’ 1969’)
- a newsworthy event (Jeff Widener ‘Tank Man’, 1989)
- an infamous image or event (Sam Shere ‘Hindenburg Disaster’, 1936)
- a famous (or infamous) subject (Alberto Corda ‘Guerillo Heroico‘, 1960)
- an image that stands the test of history (Roger Fenton ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’, 1855)
- a weapon to carry a message (Heinrich Hoffman ‘Hitler at a Nazi Party Rally’, 1934)
Q: If so, does this devalue the true extent of the role of the photography in bringing about change?
No. A great image is a great image. The examples quoted above all made a global impact, for good or bad. And brining things right up to date, Nilüfer Demir picture of the dead boy on the beach of the Greek island of Kos (‘Aylan Kurdi’, 2015) had arguably more impact on public perception of the refugee crisis than the many videos. The impact of a single, dead child was quite profound.
Interestingly, there is something rather visceral and serendipitous about many of these globally impacting, iconic images. Many come from seeking the news – and they are not always intentional, in the sense of a series, book or a film. Occasionally however they can be extremely well planned. Tom Mangelson’s ‘Brown Bear (with jumping Salmon)’ (1988) comes to mind.>
Q: Is the power of photography as advocacy in fact understated? <
I don’t think it’s either over or understated. Ideas drive change, and images can help bring ideas alive.
Q: What photographs or bodies of work come to mind when you think of those that have inspired unity and change?
The imagery from Vietnam and the associated social protests – amongst others, Malcolm Browne ‘Burning Monk‘ (1963), Don McCullin (’Shell Shocked Marine’, 1968), Nick Ut (’Terror of War’/’Napalm Girl’, 1972), Eddie Adams ‘Saigon execution‘ (1968) – as well as those documenting the news in the United States, John Filo ‘Kent State Shooting‘ (1970) – all had a major impact on US public opinion of the Vietnam War, as well as started to form a new social order.
As noted in the presentation, images such as William Anders ‘Earthrise’ (1968) bolstered the Environmental movement, alongside other media, research, books, and films.
Image © Malcolm Browne (1963) used for research and teaching purposes only