The Other Reality

Photography and Social Conscience

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on October 21, 2008

A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum, pages 280pg-515pg, (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997)

Alexandra Ryckman
First Semester, Fall 2008

From the beginning photography has been an accepted way to document what exists. This is not hard to understand since early on it was thought the photographer’s role often took a back seat to the role of the machine, the camera, and chemicals. Therefore images were truthful. Although later we could see that individuals had unique styles and themes addressed in their work, photographs are still believed to relay the truth—an important aspect of socially conscious photography where the aim is to make people aware of and improve less than ideal situations. Yet with the ever increasing store of images the impact of photographs seem to loose some of its former vigor.

Although the camera was seen to reproduce nature accurately, photography was not immediately used as a means to promote social change.  There were several factors that contributed to this including its physical qualities; “the small size, reflective surfaces, and uniqueness of the daguerreotype did not suit it for this role” (Rosenblum, 342). The fact that only one copy was produced with a daguerreotype was important because in order to make the public aware of a social problem the evidence needed to reach a large audience. Therefore documentary photography was not only waiting on photographic technology to improve but also on printing technology.

It is difficult to draw a line in the history of photography to determine when social documentation for the betterment of society started. Many early pictures of workers exist as genre scenes, as information, but not with the intent to show the harsh reality of the lower class. Often the lower classes, as well as foreign peoples and customs, were romanticized and hardly conducive to social change. Also, in order for photography to fulfill this need the connection between poverty, living conditions and social behavior needed to be recognized beyond a religious belief that people’s sufferings related directly to their sins, “impoverished immigrants were thought by most middle-class people to be responsible for their own poverty” (Rosenblum, 359).

One of the earliest American photographers to take advantage of photography’s ability to inform people about the plight of how “the other half lives” was Jacob Riis, who photographed the tenement world. “The photographs were seen as a way to produce incontrovertible evidence of the existence of vagrant children, squalid housing, and the disgraceful lodgings provided by the police for the homeless” (Rosenblum, 359). Another photographer working to draw attention to little known problems was Lewis Hine who photographed child laborers. His photographs of children from across the United States working in unsafe factories and mines in association with the National Child Labor Committee did result in improvements to and enforcement of child labor laws.

Probably the best-known photographic project is the work of the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) during the Great Depression. This project “is a paradigm of what can be accomplished when sensitive photographers working with a stubborn yet visionary director are given opportunities and financial and psychological support in their efforts to make visual statements about compelling social conditions” (Rosenblum, 379). Each photographer, of which there were eleven, was able to utilize their specific style along with their individual interests to meet the goals of the project. Some have seen this work as propagandistic because the photographers were asked to show their subjects in the best light and not to let them appear depressing, needing to make “interesting and compassionate pictures instead of mere visual records whether they portrayed inanimate objects or people.” Although this seems a positive form of propaganda if anything, as it did sometimes help to immediately relieve suffering of migrant families.

I often wonder if a project of this magnitude and importance can happen again today.  It seems the likelihood of any government giving a group of photographers money and a loose script of what to photograph is very slim. These images, as well as being a testimony of what was happening during that time have become icons of a specific era. I can hardly think of any group of images that have been able to ingrain themselves so thoroughly in our national conscious. As the social circles of photographers and artists were much smaller then, it seemed as if everyone knew everyone else. A community of photographers working together toward the same end appears more conducive to a project of this scale. Individual photographers can be effective but how much more so is a group of concerned artists?

I had been taught early on to respect others and to have a sincere concern for their wellbeing.  I felt that no matter what career I went into it should be a positive influence on the community and when I became interested in photography I was naturally drawn to photography as social documentation, a way to make people aware of other’s misfortunes in hopes that it could make a tangible difference in their lives. Work from Lewis Hine and the F.S.A. always made me believe that photographs could and do impact society for the better. It may still be possible but to what extent?

Susan Sontag, in On Photography suggests the act of photographing is non-intervention, it is a remote and distant way of trying to help someone, instead of helping the individual immediately you photography them in their suffering.  I like to believe that photographers do help immediately; not only if they are connected with an aid group but also that their work brings about a change for the larger group of affected people and not just an individual. However, Sontag also suggests that in order to move people you have to shock them and that is becoming harder to do.

“Concerned photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (Sontag, 21). I hate to admit that she might be right but things have begun to look the same. No matter what famine you see pictures from they are all just pictures of skinny people. That is a horrible way of approaching it but when I see a photograph of a famine victim I can never tell where or when it was taken, it just gets filed in my ‘famine’ repertoire of images. And I rarely think, ‘I should see if I could do something to help’ because poverty and disasters seem ever present, these horrors are just part of life. This is a unfortunately negative view of things and although there is truth to it I still want to believe that photographs can and do actually make a difference.  I want to believe that they matter and touch people and can be a positive influence in this world.

Works cited

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973

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One Response

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  1. Dahlia said, on October 21, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    You did an amazing job slogging and parsing through the prose to figure out what the hell he was trying to say.

    I believe photography still does have an impact upon the world, but due to the near-constant exposure to imagery it requires newer and more shocking photographs to rouse people, to avoid the “waning of affect” that Frederic Jameson talks about. (He’s another good, and important postmodernist.)

    For example, look at the incidents at Abu Ghraib—the images that were take there were a necessary component in conveying the atrocities being committed. I can’t imagine the story being half as powerful without them.


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