Photography, like rock music, may not have solved all the problems in the world. But just as heart-felt lyrics make us think, so do powerful images.
Poverty and child labour have been with us for centuries, but it was the camera that shone a light on these stains on society. Way back in the late 1800s, American journalist Jacob Riis wanted to better document the slums of New York City and so began taking photographs to support his articles. An extended exposé published in 1890, How The Other Half Lives, lead to federal, state and municipal funds cleaning up the city’s tenements.
During the early 1900s the National Child Labour Committee turned to Lewis Hine to document slavery in oppressive warehouses throughout America’s east coast. The resulting images and reports saw children return to their rightful place in schools to learn, rather than labour.
During the 1960s photographers had almost unfettered access to record the horrors of war, particularly in Vietnam. Two images from that conflict would become icons of the 20th Century; Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of a Viet Cong officer being shot at point-blank range by a South Vietnamese general, and Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm bomb blast. Both images won Pulitzer prizes but more than that they helped embolden a growing opposition to the Vietnam War. “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world,” Eddie Adams would later write.
Famine throughout Africa was reaching the world’s consciousness by the 1980s, helped by this graphic image taken by Mike Wells, of the hand of a malnourished Ugandan boy in the hand of an Italian missionary. Wells thought his image was “extremely corny. Hackneyed. A cliché.” But it moved people like Bob Geldof who asked rock stars to strut their stuff during the Live Aid concerts, raising millions of dollars for famine relief.
One person battling pollution with his camera is Chris Jordan, a social conscience photographer who’s documented the tragic effects floating plastic has on sea birds that are unable to differentiate a tasty fish from a bottle top or cigarette lighter. He has ventured at great expense to remote Pacific islands to photograph images we’d rather not see but should – of the intestines of once-majestic birds filled with plastic debris.
One of the most recent examples of a photograph shaking our conscience is of a young Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. So sad is the image that the photographer, Nilüfer Demir, says its impression keeps her awake at night. Not so for many nations indifferent to the suffering and desperation of refugees from the war-torn Middle East from which the boy’s family was fleeing. As his father Abdullah said 12 months after it was taken, “The politicians said after the deaths in my family, ‘Never again!’ Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”
It may take a lot more tragic photos to see that situation change.