The Power of Photography

Photo credit: Dariusz Sankowski (via Unsplash)

by Sai

In our modern age, we are always surrounded by images in all forms, whether it’s advertising, art, or a photo accompanying an article. Everyone has seen in some form or another, a mass of immigrants being portrayed to push an anti-immigration policy. Instead of women or children, or even just individuals, large numbers of men are used, to invoke a certain feeling with the reader. On the other hand, individuality is stressed in some newspapers when on the topic of humanitarian crises. Especially images of suffering or dead children are used to invoke sympathy, empathy and perhaps guilt. In 2015 the death of Alan Kurdi acted as a catalyst to the Syrian crisis. Just last month a similar thing happened, when the photo of a toddler and her father, drowned in a river, got published to illustrate the urgency of the US-Mexico border issue.

Images are used for all sorts of things, to attract attention, compel action or evoke certain feelings. Some of the most striking examples of this being successful are seen in War or conflict Photography. Most people will be familiar with the photo of a lone man, refusing to move out of the way of tanks, in Tiananmen square in 1989. More importantly, many will think of exactly that photo when thinking of conflict within China, human rights movement and maybe even student movements. The photo has also ensured that the West knew, and would never forget the massacre.

Similarly, Lewis Hine’s Cotton Mill Girl, and actually the entire series he took in the early 1900s on child labour, can be largely credited for the introduction of anti-child labour laws. As a Sociologist, Hine knew that mere words would not get the attention he wanted, and so he spent about a decade photographing child labourers. Using symmetry, and most importantly a low angle, the photographer personalised these children, thus stigmatising subjecting them to often lethal work. One last example would be The Face of Aids, a photo taken in 1990 by photographer Therese Frair. The photo shows David Kirby, a young man who died of Aids, surrounded by his grieving family. Until then, the disease was seen as unmentionable, repulsive, and foreign, which changed after this humanising side of the illness became public. Three years after the image was published in LIFE magazine, Bill Clinton created the White House Office of National AIDS Policy.

Because photographs are often used as vessels for messages, I think it is necessary to look at photographs as cultural objects, situated in a specific cultural context.

It can be said, that the power of photography comes from its illusion of truth, it’s “you were there” appeal. Commonly, images are taken as the granted truth of a situation, they are supposed to represent something in its rawest, most unedited way.

However, contrary to common assumption an image is not a representation of one reality. To study a photograph, and therefore to understand it to the best of one’s abilities, means to look at the author, production line, historical context, intended audience as well as the practical means utilised to capture the illustrated moment.

It is those practical means, angle, light, composition, colour and more, which are often overlooked. However, every single variable can drastically change the content of an image.

The most striking examples of perspective in photography are again within conflict photography, and within advertising. Does a journalist show soldiers enjoying themselves in their camps? Wounded soldiers? Wounded civilians? Or should a dead child on the beach be shown in detail, close-up, or within the context of a dirty, and shockingly normal-looking beach?  Similarly, an advertisement will always show the best locations at times when there are no people, or paint half of an item’s photograph in post-capture editing software.

In any case, photographs invoke a reaction of some sort, one that cannot be obtained by mere words. When accompanying articles, they bring the topic closer to the reader, increase the investment of the reader, or catch the attention in the first place. However, as stated above, the meaning of a photograph is always dependent on who sees it. Therefore, the creator of a photograph can never truly anticipate in which way its power will go. Articles help guide or focus the readers’ reaction in a certain way, which is why I think images alone would often not get the same reaction as they do when the context is in some way explained.

As photographs and images in general are highly emotional and therefore very powerful tools, it is up to the audience to remember, that what is portrayed is only that: a portrayal. Every photograph has a meaning, an intended meaning and a story behind it, and should not be taken for granted, or left unexplained.