Power of photography to change public opinion

During the last module, my tutor raised the question about idealist photographers assuming that they can somehow change the world and whether this is a pure pipedream or images can in fact bring about some sort of social change through raising awareness on certain issues. Since much documentary photography is focused on marginal groups, one presumes that the motives are somehow humanitarian and the photographer is concerned with ameliorating the lot of his subjects, raising awareness among the public to bring about political activism, or at the very least exposing the exploitation and hypocrisy of hegemonic structures.

Much of the world today is represented in this way: …a tiny handful of large and powerful oligarchies control about ninety percent of the world’s information and communication flows. This domain, staffed by experts and media executives, is … affiliated to an even smaller number of governments, at the very same time that the rhetoric of objectivity, balance, realism, and freedom covers what is being done. And for the most part, such consumer items as “the news”—a euphemism for ideological images of the world that determine political reality for a vast majority of the world’s population—hold forth, untouched by interfering secular and critical minds, who for all sorts of obvious reasons are not hooked into the systems of power.” (Edward Said 2000, p 82)

Although photographers such as Jim Rosenthal did have a massive influence on public opinion and were ultimately instrumental in bringing about the removal of US forces from Vietnam, Strauss (2005) notes that photojournalists covering the Nicaraguan revolution were idealists:

in the tradition of earlier press photographers who believed that by showing the horror and desolation of war, they could hasten the end of war; by “photographing the truth,” they could influence public opinion and public policy and change the world” (Strauss 2005, p 20).

Strauss was referring specifically to Richard Cross and John Hoagland, who were both killed in crossfire (dubious circumstances) in Nicaragua in 1983 and 1984 respectively.

The most political decision you make

Is where you direct people’s eyes.

In other words, what you show people,

Day in and day out, is political…

And the most politically indoctrinating

Thing you can do to a human being

Is to show him, every day,

That there can be no change.

Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing


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