The Power of Photography

Adek Berry AFP, ABC website

A grandmother holds the hand of her three-day-old grandchild at a camp for flood-affected Pakastanis in Sukkur on September 9, 2010.

This picture really got me thinking.

In my job I see hundreds of images a day, whether I’m photo-shopping them into nice little pixel nuggets for the web or scanning the intertubes for news and the general vibe of the planet.

Working on the recent catastrophic floods of Pakistan I’ve come across many heart wrenching images which may illicit the emotive response we want (donations) but what about the people who are in the images? What about their right to grieve privately? This though often strikes me when I see footage of suicide bombings in marketplaces, particularly in the Middle East, a part of the world we already distance ourselves from.  I have a fairly active imagination, I can envision the horror and suffering a bomb could inflict, I don’t need to see it. Does the blood, cries and pain of these people bring about a better comprehension of the situation? Or does it further alienate us as an audience, seeing the ‘other’ in the worst possible circumstances?

One image that struck home from the Pakistan floods was one that was reminiscent of the images from African famines I remember from the 80s and 90s, a photograph of Reza and several of his siblings, covered in flies, featured in the Eyewitness slot and The Guardian. The shocking image of four young children lying on a filthy patchwork quilt, one of them sucking on an empty yellow bottle, all of them covered by flies stirred global support. The Guardian kept tabs on the family and now the bottle is full of milk, no more flies and The Guardian and its readership are heroes.  Too harsh? Has the ends justified the means in this case?

On the other side of the lens is another view all together. What of the people who leave their comfortable affluent lives to chase the dangerous and exciting life of a photojournalist – the fate of Kevin Carter, Pulitzer-prize winning South African photojournalist should not be forgotten. If you can’t picture the man, you will certainly remember his award-winning photograph that contributed to his suicide.

Kevin Carter's award-winning photo

This photograph showing a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture won Kevin Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

Haunted by the horrific images from Sudan, Carter committed suicide in 1994 soon after receiving the award. His father, Mr Jimmy Carter said “Kevin always carried around the horror of the work he did.” – The New York Times.

As well as being images being manipulated for a good cause, images can also be used as a weapon. Errol Morris in the NY Times wrote an excellent article which looks at the power of images and how they can shape our thoughts. From the starting point of the infamous doctored Iranian missile photo, he goes on to talk about why we need to question the images we view.  Changing history can be as easy as changing the photo – either content, or simply the caption.

Photographs can never tell the whole story and it’s up to us, the audience, to feed back to the media what is and isn’t acceptable photojournalism.

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