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.

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