Photography has the power to visually uncover the truth that would otherwise stay under the guise of ignorance. It helps us see and become aware of what is often very far away from us such as wars or living conditions and perspectives of people on the other side of the world, and to understand the issues that appear rather abstract as, for instance, civil rights. As such, soon after its invention photography became a popular tool used not only to document different realities but to advocate and fight for social change.
“To some degree, all photography is documentary because all photographs document something. Each photograph is evidence of something that appeared in front of the camera,” explains Michelle Borge in her book “Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change.” However, exploiting the medium to “change the world” eventually singled out a specific genre within the documentary genre called “activist photography” whose emergence is linked to the time of great social movements and upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s. Proponents of the genre travelled to photograph the injustices, social inequities, political unrests and conflicts around the world recording what was out of sight from afar and, more importantly, bringing “a living experience” to the public with the aim to influence the minds of the same. Affecting people’s consciousness through an image is the very essence of the genre that distinguishes it from documentary photography. However, this thought provoking and cathartic feature is not easy to achieve.
Activist photography is a very challenging genre for photographers in many matters. Capturing events from elsewhere suggests a detachment. Moreover, deciding what is worth capturing opens the door for the bias. Clearly being a witness is not enough. Although they are obliged to transfer accurate information, activist photographers are inevitably bodily and emotionally involved in the events they are shooting. They cannot separate themselves emotionally from misery and suffering they are looking at so their visual testimonies of people’s pain could never be one hundred percent objective. Nor they should. How else could one put a human face on issues that are difficult to comprehend?!
Activist photography is deeply personal and overwhelmingly emotional for both the photographer and the viewer. Some may find that this opens up the possibility for misrepresentation and ultimately misinterpretation and to some extent they are right. Being a compassionate witness is not enough too. A good activist photographer also needs to be knowledgable and ethical to bring the truth to light responsibly. After all, activist photography is all about making the world a better place.