Changing the world through photography

Who wants to change the world? Maybe not everybody does, but I think many of us do want to have an impact. Maybe selfishly, we want to feel like we've made a difference, left a legacy of some kind. Or less selfishly, we see something in the world, in society, that isn't right and we gain a passion to see it change, regardless of who makes the difference or how it comes about.

A local church pastor spoke recently about the need to change hearts and minds rather than rules and regulations. That changing the system isn't a bad goal, but won't alone make the difference. Ideally the changes work together, that most people come to believe that the change is the right thing to do, which helps to then influence and support legislative changes.

For me I think the earliest injustice I felt was for the homeless. Many years ago I used to go out with a group in London to give out sandwiches, and we gradually got to know a group of people living in one of the walkways of a subway station (long since cleared out now). The first guy I met had only been on the streets for a few months and had previously been happily (he thought) married with a nice house and job. No drink, no drugs, he wasn't struggling with addiction. Suddenly his story didn't seem so distant. Then I see older guys, and it seems like it's always been their life. And of course that isn't true. And so I wonder what their story has been to get them there.

Another situation that hit me was when a few of us were helping out at an orphanage in Ukraine for a week. The kids were doing well but we began to understand the huge threat to them of being picked up by traffickers when they eventually left the orphanage. (One of our team later founded the charity Unseen to do something about it). It was similar feeling visiting Guatemala City a few years ago and meeting some of the poorest families there. The stark inequality and injustice is clear.

Sometimes just getting a little closer makes all the difference. Close enough to hear someone's story when they tell it personally, to experience it a little rather than just read about some issue that seems huge and remote and impersonal. To see the face and hear the voice that is at risk or is suffering. It becomes so much more real.

I can't claim right now to have a burning desire to make a specific change. But I feel like I should. I want what I do to matter, to make a difference. Maybe I need to think on these things more, and remember what a huge disparity there is between those of us who have (income, property, food, water, power, abundance) and those that don't, whatever the reason might be. Maybe I need to think back more on those experiences, on the streets of London, in Ukraine, in Guatemala.

It does lead me to think about photography and what change it can make. In the book 'Prints and Visual Communication' (and quoted in 'The Photographer's Eye' by John Szarkowski), William V Ivins Jr states:

"at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself."

Sounds ridiculous right? How could the images matter more than what actually happened? It sounds dangerously like the current trends of ignoring facts and chasing perceptions. But the more I think about it, the more it seems true. The perceptions are what change hearts and minds. Even for first-hand witnesses, over time it will be the images that become the strongest memories of an event. And for those that didn't witness it, the majority, the images and reports that they see and read will form their perceptions of what happened.

Which brings amazing power and responsibility to the not just journalists but to all of us. How we photograph something can help determine the impact of the event, or perceptions about a culture or organization. Maybe we don't have a huge audience but we still have an influence. On those around us, on social media, on our kids. On whoever takes the time to look at our images.


Headshot, portrait, street and documentary photographer in NYC and Jersey City

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