Socially Engaged Photography

mickyatesCollaboration, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Culture, Documentary, Ethics, FinalMajorProject, FMPWeek12, Ideas, Photography, Practice, Social Development 5 Comments

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to aid American farmworkers during the Great Depression. Its photographers aimed to document what was going on, in an effort to raise awareness and support. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were two of those photographers.

Interestingly, there is one school of thought, repeated by Susan Meiselas and Wendy Ewald, that in some way Lange’s iconic image (Migrant Mother) of Florence Owens Thompson was a form of collaboration. They noted this at a Magnum Foundation seminar in 2017, as one of their bullet points on Collaboration:

‘3. Collaboration Precedes Iconization: For Dorothea Lange’s photo, Migrant Mother, Lange convinced Florence Owens Thompson to be photographed, to make her and others’ conditions known. Thompson posed herself as the figure of poverty, but never saw the picture until 1978′.

In fact, Lange did not even know the names of Thompson and her children, and Thompson later said she had been promised that the image would not be published. I am not sure that collaboration is the right word.

Nevertheless, the FSA project was one of the largest scale examples of using photography to critically illustrate social concerns, and to try to build support for those people adversely affected.

Lewis Hine, who was both a sociologist and a photographer, used the medium as a way to urge social reform on child labour.

In fact, one could suggest that most ‘documentary’ is about observing things in such a way that the audience at minimum learns something and at maximum decides to do something as a result of seeing the photographs.

However, there is a difference between using photography to illustrate and report on things, even with the intention of affecting audience perceptions, and actually being engaged with the people depicted in some kind of participative or collaborative fashion. Intention has a role to play, as does precision of language.

An example would be Dana Lixenberg’s fascinating Imperial Courts. When the project started, in 1992, Lixenberg went to South Central Los Angeles to cover a magazine story on the riots following the Rodney King trial. It was in many ways a straight-forward factual journalistic documentary. But the first visit inspired Lixenberg to revisit the area many times, and particularly the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts. Eventually this became a collaborative photographic project, working with the community over an extending period of time and chronicling their lives.

Let’s unpack things.

From the Cambridge Online Dictionary:

Socially – in or relating to a social situation; by or relating to society.

Observer – a person who watches what happens but has no active part in it.

Participation – the fact that you take part or become involved in something; the act of taking part in an event or activity.

Partnership – an agreement between organizations, people, etc. to work together.

Engagement – the fact of being involved with something; the process of encouraging people to be interested in the work of an organization, etc.

Collaboration – the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing.

Concerned – involved in something or affected by it; troubled with feelings of anxiety.

Activist – a person who believes strongly in political or social change and takes part in activities such as public protests to try to make this happen.

Reform – to make an improvement, especially by changing a person’s behaviour or the structure of something.

Change – to exchange one thing for another thing, especially of a similar type; to make or become different; to form a new opinion or make a new decision about something that is different from your old one.

Thus, it is easy to say that many kinds of activities are social; engagement and partnership are more than participation, though collaboration is a more dynamic, interactive process than all; and change can encompass more than reform, sometimes driven by activists, sometimes not.

Lixenberg, for example, started largely as an observer, though became a collaborator with the community. Whilst a ‘concerned’ project, and Lixenberg became heavily engaged with the people of the community, it is hard to see this as a work of social activism, in the manner of Hine.

The photographs that I took when documenting the Cambodian education project were respectful, sought consent as far as possible – and often prints were sent to the villagers and schools concerned. The images were never used as marketing material, so did not fall foul of some of the critique that NGO’s use (even if sometimes unknowingly) exploitative materials. The photography was ethically executed. Frankly, though, and perhaps rather like Lange and Evans, I was at best a ‘socially concerned’ photographer, even though I used the images to document an ‘activist change program’.

As co-leaders of the education project, Ingrid and I were most definitely social activists. Partnering with Save the Children and the Provincial Education Office led to what is known in change management circles as ‘programmatic change’. That is, we were all agents of change wanting to radically alter a system, even if the people within the system, whilst they would benefit from it, were not able to be full partners in the change.

The project was collaborative from the beginning – the Ministry of Education, Save the Children, teachers and parents … but it was still a project designed ‘from the outside’ rather than with the equal involvement of teachers, parents and children. I would argue that it was still a highly ethical program, seeking to involve all stakeholders as transparently and fully as possible.

See posts that I wrote which touched on the ethics of change management and the ethics of the Cambodia project. Related, I am working on an overall ethics framework for photography, as discussed in a post on participation.

    1. SURFACE – THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ITSELF (Technical – Composition – Manipulation)
    2. MEANING – THE SUBJECT MATTER (Content – Symbols – Narrative – Caption)
    3. GENRE – UNIQUE CONSIDERATIONS (e.g. Documentary, Nature, News, Portrait)
    4. TIME AND PLACE (Significance – Appropriateness – History – Altered Meaning)
    5. SOCIETY – CULTURAL & RELIGIOUS CONSIDERATIONS (Understanding – Respect – Sacred – Taboos)
    6. GAZE – GENDER, RACE & EQUALITY (Stereotypes – Colonialism – Norms)
    7. POWER – RELATIONSHIPS (Photographer – Subject – Curation – Audience – Media)
    8. CHANGE – INTENTION (Observe – Document – Advocate – Programmatic)
    9. NETWORK – DISTRIBUTION & REUSE (Trustworthiness – Context – Alteration)
    10. LEGAL (Ownership – Consent – Privacy – Data Protection)

That is very much work in progress, and needs to be simplified. But I think the thought process is clear.

Back to Cambodia, I would also suggest that, whilst we were most decidedly socially engaged, I was not using photography as a tool of engagement – other than to some extent sharing the fun of it all with children, parents and teachers.

The Tate defines Socially Engaged Practice, also referred to as social practice or socially engaged art, as:

‘… any artform which involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction. This can often be organised as the result of an outreach or education program, but many independent artists also use it within their work’.

Assemble is an example. They are a London-based collective who work across art, design and architecture to create projects with the communities who use and inhabit them. Their aim is direct action with a ‘DIY sensibility’, and they won the Turner Prize in 2015. In creating physical projects impacting communities, Assemble are not just artists but also are change activists.

To quote Eli Regan:

‘Britain has a long tradition of socially engaged photographic practice. An example of this is the Mass Observation movement dating from 1937 which included photographers such as Humphrey Spender who sought to counteract the middle class stereotype of the working classes and worked alongside writers to record the way people talked, interacted and how they spent their leisure time.

Another fantastic example of the practice is Jo Spence’s work in the 70s and 80s, whose collaboration with Terry Dennett meant community projects such as The Hackney Flashers Collective took shape under an activist and shared approach. The Hackney Flashers Collective engaged women in questioning the status quo through feminist approaches with works such as ‘Who’s Holding the Baby?’ and ‘Women in Work’. (Regan, 2017).

The Mass Observation Project is still alive today, involving collaboration of all kinds to record and research the everyday life of the British. That said, is this a project of change or simply awareness? It seems to me it is useful research but isn’t oriented towards change.

Anthony Luvera is an educator and self-defined ‘socially engaged photographer’. Sometime he take the photographs, and other times he encourages project participants to do so. I wrote earlier about his project FAQ, and won’t repeat all of that here. Still, my conclusion is worth repeating.

‘… a more important question that is raised for me is around ‘impact’. I don’t want to get into a debate on ‘art for arts sake’, but in creating socially engaged projects, there is clearly some kind of objective. Raising awareness is one, of course. But, in the case of FAQ, I would have liked to have seen how, for example, Councils changed their approach as a result of the intervention.

If I consider the Cambodia Schools Project, data and measurement of change was used at every stage. Of course, this was a gritty social development project. But, still. When we as artists create ‘socially engaged work’, how should we measure its results? Via audience comments, or by actual behavioural change, somewhere in these system we are working with?

Denis Bourgeoise, an expert on the ethics of change management, lays out the differences between types of change activity, its impact and the ethical considerations. At its least invasive, a change can be facilitative – aiming to help other people get to some kind of better place, without ‘forcing’ or ‘manipulating’ them. Attempts to build self-awareness or skills and capacity might fall into this category. Nothing is forced, and the hope is that the subject is motivated enough to change themselves.

At the opposite extreme, a change agent might need to force action, with or without the support of the people affected. Think leadership in war, or a major shift in corporate strategy impacting jobs. In that situation, if the change is conducted transparently and openly, Denis would argue the change is ethical, pursuing a future better state.

However, if the change is pursued without transparency, that would veer towards manipulation and unethical behaviour. Nixon’s behavior during the Vietnam War would fall into that unethical camp.

Building on Denis’ ideas, I suggest that there is a continuum of engagement, and a hierarchy of impact.

At a minimal level, subjects may be simply observers. In the realm of photography, travel and tourist photography come to mind. And I would note there is far too much photography of the homeless without thought or intent to improve their lot – or ‘poor locals’ as a trope, globally –  on social media today.

Along the continuum, subjects might be participators or collaborators (Luvera’s FAQ project, for example). Eventually, all concerned might become parters, or even equals.

The degree of difference being made will vary, whatever the status of the subjects. Nothing might happen, or perhaps the subjects and the change agent / photographer might gain some new level of awareness. Beware though, photography that builds a photographer’s awareness without consideration of the subject. One only has to see endless pictures of the homeless or of ‘poor locals’ to have examples.

Roosevelt used the public relations impact of the FSA photographs to provide financial and other support for those affected by the dustbowl. Hine helped change public opinion about Children at Work.

Whether any particular images of the Vietnam War made a difference is a moot point. For example, Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phuc appeared when the decision to pull out of Vietnam was essentially already taken. But there is little question that the literal bombardment of images (still and TV) from Vietnam helped changed US public perception of the War. This raises the question as to the role of any single photographer.

As Paul Clements pointed out (below), Susan Sontag noted

‘The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning, and marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentaries (as distinct from courtiers with cameras) prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them’. (Sontag, 1977: 55)

In this, I agree with Sontag – the pursuit of misery has been (and still is) a photographic trope, hence my comments above on the homeless and the ‘poor local’.

As Paul also suggested, Sontag’s words could usefully be pinned on all documentary photographer’s walls. That said, my issue with Sontag is that it is easy to criticise (especially if you don’t actually practice photography), but it is less easy to provide helpful guidance. Sontag famously decried all images of atrocity – until 9/11 happened, when she had at least a partial change of mind. So, I add her comments into the consideration, but not as a definite political or ethical position, at least partly because Sontag does not trouble to fully develop her definitions and thought process.

Photojournalists, in pursuit of ‘truth’ and ‘news’ tend to fall into the observer category, although some are seeking to affect change in public opinions. Philip Jones Griffith and Vietnam Inc come to mind, as does David Douglas Duncan, and I ProtestNick Hedges work on Glasgow slums, or Allan Sekula‘s Fish Story also are good examples. Sekula’s multi faceted and intense exploration of the impact of globalism still stands as a class investigative piece, though sadly hard to see any changes flowing from it.

Recent images, such as that of Alan (Aylan) Kurdi and the drowned Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 26, and his 23 month old daughter Valeria, did make a difference to public opinion, although a sustained change in public opinion and governmental action seems lacking from either.

If something actually changes in the system being examined – for example, in Luvera’s FAQ project, had UK Councils actually done something about homelessness, however small, as a result of the project – then a change beyond ‘awareness’ is taking place. Whether this is still ‘optional’ (at worst, a passing sense of action, soon forgotten) or sustained becomes another consideration.

The FAQ project was collaborative in that Luvera worked with Gerald Mclaverty, who had first hand experience of homelessness. I am however not aware as to how the project changed Mclaverty’s status. I believe he already had escaped homelessness, although the project documentation makes that hard to pin down.

I am not debating here that photographers should not pursues ‘social engagement’. They should, as photography can be a weapon in the arsenal of change. Just because something is difficult (to affect change) doesn’t mean that one should not try. Allan Sekula’s important notion of ‘Critical Realism’ suggest a methodology and definition of practice.

But, I do argue that photographers should consciously consider what kind of impact they are trying to make, and be open and honest about that with their audiences.

Simply labelling oneself ‘socially engaged’ smacks of those Corporate Social Responsibility programs which just pay lip service in an effort to appease shareholders and the public at large. Those kind of activities have a long tradition – Diversity in the 1980s would be another case in point. Frankly, as a longstanding business person with a social conscience, I find such programs cynical and counter productive unless they have clear actions and measurable results. In a word, I find them unethical.

I would also suggest that the same logic should apply to photographers. Appropriating ‘social engagement’ without actually attempting to make some kind of significant and (better yet) measurable change is at best a poor use of language and at worst dishonest.

They would better be described as ‘concerned observers’, even if they do encourage the participation of their subjects.


In a subsequent conversation with Paul, he noted:

‘Oh definitely decent points. I think the main point to be aware of is the one Sontag makes but you need to be aware of, as I am too with my involvement with Palestine. I admit to my failings and l am probably a little voyeuristic … I am also very interested in the situation there that goes back to my very first visit in 1981. However, there are considerations to think of and be acutely aware of and also face up to as a western photographer within these complex “dichotomies”.

You should revisit Sontag, as much as it pains you too … but here, for me she hits the nail on the head.

“The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning, and marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentaries (as distinct from courtiers with cameras) prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.” (Sontag, 2008: 55)

It’s not going to stop me doing what I do, but you do need to understand where critics are coming from. I do love Sontag and l am certainly more informed for reading her work’.

My response:

‘Yes that’s very fair – and in that I agree with Sontag. I’ll reference that and reread that section. I don’t however think it changes my views on current ‘socially engaged’ photographers. If anything, simply reinforces it’.


“Me neither but I think you need to understand it and certainly be aware of it… As a Photojournalist/DocPhot. we are “The Enemy” in Sontag’s and others eyes… but I know my failings, I am aware of them but that will not make me “avert my gaze”…


Agree. But then you and I actually go take pictures of people in various states (including distress) something she never did  That’s really the essence of my critique of her. Very David Hume of me’.


“Yeah the whole of Page 55 from “On Photography” should be printed out and stuck on the fridge door of every DocPhot. It certainly has made me more powerful as a photographer … as does most critical photographic theory… I absolutely adore it, especially Sontag and Barthes!!


“It’s a good addition – you see that exploitation of the homeless or poor local people on social media all the time”.


“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.” (Sontag, 2008:6)

“The flaneur is not attracted to the city’s official reality but to its dark seamy corners – its neglected populations.” (Sontag, 2008: 55)

“Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” (Barthes, 1993: 78)


“Indeed. There is much truth in what she wrote, and we all need to be mindful of that. I have spent more than a little time trying to educate some of the local photo collective folks on the ethical side of documentary – and the cheap trope of street pix of the homeless”.

My issue with Sontag, more than anything, is that she presented one side without due research and consideration for other positions. Barthes likewise’.


“Even so, Barthes and Sontag certainly resonate with me….more so than many photographers who “have been there”…. Good Luck with the editing and can’t wait to see that as well as your forthcoming exhibition!!”>Even so, Barthes and Sontag certainly resonate with me … more so than many photographers who “have been there”… and at least they had opinions and were not uncontentious “sitting on the fence” types … the “realists” of this world, the ones whom by definition have no imagination!!


BAHM, Hanul. 2017. Photography Expanded at Magnum Foundation. Available at: (accessed 9/12/2018).

BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

BOURGEOIS, Denis. 2010, revised 2012. The Ethics of Organizational Change. Personal Papers.

HEDGES, Nick. 2012. In the Shadows. Shrewsbury: Blurb Books.

HINE, Lewis W. 1977. Men at Work. New York: Dover.

JONES GRIFFITHS, Philip. 1971. Vietnam Inc. 2001 Edition. Paris: Phaidon.

LIXENBERG, Dana. 2015. Imperial Courts 1993-2015. Amsterdam: Roma Books.

LUVERA, Anthony. 2014. Frequently Asked Questions.  Available at: (accessed 26/06/2019).

REGAN, Eli. 2017. What is Socially Engaged Photographic Practice? Available at: (accessed 23/08/2019).

SEKULA, Allan, 1995. Fish Story. 2018 Edition. London: Mack.

SEKULA, Allan. 2016. Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983. London: Mack.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.


Assemble: 2015 Turner Prize Winners. Undated. Available at: (accessed 23/08/2019).

Farm Security Administration, an overview. Undated. US national Archive. Available at: (accessed 15/06/2019).

Mass Observation Archive. Undated. Available at: (accessed 23.08/2019).

Socially Engaged Practice. Undated. Tate. Available at: (accessed 23/08/2019).

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