What photography can’t do

Photographs are often considered to have power, as in “That’s the power of photographs,” or “Photographs have the power to….” There’s even a book called The Power of Photography. If you’ve read previous posts or the about page, you know I have a belief in the ability of photographs to communicate. While I have strong feelings that photographs can be powerful, I stop short of believing in a universal effect. There are just too many variables. For some people a photograph can be very influential, while for other people the same picture hardly gets noticed.

One thing I am sure of, however, is that while a photograph might have a future impact, it can’t change what happened in the frame. That moment is captured, and nothing’s going to change what’s there.

I was thinking about that more after reading a NY Times Lens blog post about Don McCullin. McCullin’s been a favorite of mine for a long time. McCullin photographed conflict and suffering around the world before leaving it behind to photograph landscapes around Bath, England.

My younger self admired McCullin’s drive and and determination to be at the world’s hot spots. Like many young journalists, being in the middle of the action was something to aspire to. As I’ve gotten older, I can understand why McCullin decided it was time to move away from that work. In the blog post McCullin is quoted from a presentation at the Visa Pour l’Image festival in Perpignan, France. McCullin talked about standing in front of men who were about to be executed, having them look at him and hoping he could stop the events, or starving children thinking he could bring food. While there may have been some long-term impact, and McCullin suggests that’s debatable, the photograph didn’t change the events that are captured within it. It can’t change what happened at that moment.

So what does that mean? Well, despite my persistent vision that photographs can communicate in ways words can’t and that visual journalism is valuable, it’s important to remember there are limits. But that doesn’t mean photographers should shy away from making the tough pictures. There’s too much “dumbing down” of media already. There’s plenty in the world to lift spirits, but there’s plenty that people would rather turn away from too. We need to see those things we’d rather turn away from. McCullin said in the presentation that photojournalists haven’t changed a thing. That may be. For all the hopes photographers have had for their pictures, the big picture of human activity hasn’t changed a whole lot. But if we don’t see the things that need to be changed, it’s guaranteed that nothing will change.

New technology, old arguments

I was looking at National Geographic on my iPad this past week when I got notification that a new edition was available. The October 2013 edition cover presents it as The Photo Issue. There is a lot to look at in the issue, but I was struck by the subtitle of the article titled Visual Village. It says Now We’re All Photographers.

The article is written by James Estrin, co-editor of the Lens photography blog at The New York Times. In it he points out that with “the explosion of camera apps on our smartphones, we’re all photographers.” He goes on to write in the article that this new ease of photography results in capturing the magical as well as the mundane, and he refers to the “democratization of photography” brought about by this digital revolution.

I had to keep reminding myself I was reading about 2013, because a lot of the points Estrin makes were made more than 100 years earlier when George Eastman introduced the Kodak. Eastman’s exhortation to push the button while “we do the rest,” made photographers out of average citizens. In a short time, photography went from something requiring skill and training to be successful to something that required little more than the funds to purchase a camera, point it and press a button. And the content changed. There were cries over the dumbing down of photography and leveling the ordinary and extraordinary. In some respects the criticism is valid, but look at what we got to see that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and look at what the public came to expect would be recorded: the evidence of lives like those most of us experience on a daily basis. From there we get to here, where people with their smartphone cameras can capture the things they see, and we get to sort out what’s important.

So what’s the point? Well, while technology changes the impact it has on society and culture follows patterns. As a history teacher/researcher, I have to admit a bit of bias, but we would do well when new technologies cause new concerns to take a look back and see if it’s really going to be as new and different as we think.

I have a persistent vision

What is a persistent vision?

It’s a physical phenomenon, and it’s a philosophy. The physical phenomenon is known more properly as persistence of vision. It’s the phenomenon that explains how a series of still photographs can appear to be a moving picture. The brain sees the still pictures with slight differences and connects them logically to suggest motion. Motion pictures rely on this phenomenon so that a series of still pictures projected at a rate of 24/second can look like smooth motion. It works with flip books too. So with each frame there’s a persistent vision.

As a philosophy, a persistent vision suggests one that continues to exist over a prolonged period. The environmental/cultural factors may change, but the vision remains. It persists.

I work in a visual communication field, teaching and conducting research primarily related to photojournalism. Walter Williams, first dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, set forth his vision of journalism in The Journalist’s Creed. In that spirit, I offer my persistent vision:

I have a persistent vision…

  • that pictures communicate in ways that words cannot.
  • that visual documentation of events is an essential part of the public and historical record.
  • that photographers/videographers/designers are skilled communicators using specialized tools and methods of communication.
  • that visual journalism is valuable and deserves support from the industry and the public.

That is my persistent vision. I recognize its idealistic nature. The real world often conflicts with the points in my vision, but without idealism there is little to strive for. So in a world where newspapers lay off entire photography staffs, where anyone with a camera can share photographs with the world and where people think anything on the internet is free to use, my vision for vision communication will persist. I may not change attitudes, but I will continue to hold fast to my vision.

That’s the perspective I’ll take in this blog. I’ll share topics related to visual communication, and I’ll comment on them. And through it, you’ll know my persistent vision.