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So You Want to Change the World

Lewis Bush


01 sep. 2020 • 12 min

Impact. This is what most people working in what can be called photojournalism‘Photojournalism’ is here used as a shorthand to encompass both photojournalism and documentary photography for reasons explained later in the text. want to have, however reticently they might admit it. They confess this desire guardedly because, like adults admitting they still believe in magic, the suggestion that photography can change the world is regarded as naïve, an irrational belief that flies in the face of logic and history.

This widely held cynicism isn’t unjustified. We live in a time more comprehensively imaged than at any other in history, and it becomes more so every day. A panoply of wrongs and horrors is accessible to almost anyone, at any time, through a few taps and swipes of a smartphone screen. Humankind’s inhumanity has never been more fully portrayed, but despite this visibility, our world seems to be getting worse. It hasn’t been demonstrated that photography has slowed, much less halted, the global rise of authoritarianism, a resurgent far right, ever-deepening inequality or the destruction of the environment.

In the face of this, why do so many of us still cling to the idea that making photographs of problems can help to fix them? Maybe it’s partly because, as photographers, we’ve been reared on tales of our forebearers who seemed to do exactly this: the selfless crusaders recounted in the lore who were able to move mountains with their images. Yet we, their descendants, seem unable to do the same, despite having many advantages these forebearers lacked, from immense advances in photographic technology to the far more numerous platforms available for disseminating our images.

So why does photography no longer seem to work the way we’ve been taught it used to? Maybe part of the challenge in answering this is that whether they position themselves as critics or advocates of the idea, relatively few photographers can explain how photography was ever supposed to achieve the change we spend so much time debating. Photographs are just patterns of light and dark scattered across a surface. Photography has no mobility, no voice and no agency of its own. In and of itself, it isn’t able to achieve a thing, and so in that sense, at least, the idea that photography can change the world is indeed naive. The question to ask is what other forces and institutions did photography once work in concert with in order to achieve its remarkable, world-making acts, and what happened to those relationships that brought about their end? To answer that, we need to go back to where the idea of photographic journalism as a force for change first arose.

Imagining change

Photojournalism encompasses two practices with much in common but significant differences, and for these reasons they deserve to be discussed at least briefly on their own terms. The emergence of the first, documentary photography, is hard to date, but something that resembles its characteristics predates John Grierson’s 1925 coining of the term by roughly thirty years.Grierson, John. 1966. Grierson on Documentary. California: University of California Press. At least in its early stages, what we might now recognise as documentary was typified by its self-initiated nature, the lengthy period of engagement with its subject matter and its diverse means of distribution. Early practitioners often relied on strategies like speaking tours, magic lantern shows, books and public displays we might now recognise as exhibitions, each form combining multiple images to build a sustained argument. Jacob Riis’s work on New York slums is a good example of many of these aspects.Riis, Jacob. 1890. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York.

By contrast, photojournalism would seem by name and nature to demand the use of the printed page as its medium of distribution. If we take this as a definition, then its origins date back to around 1872, when the halftone process first made it feasible for newspapers to be illustrated with photographs on a large scale. Photojournalism was to a significant degree driven by external, impersonal imperatives, motivated by complex interactions with the news agenda and economic and political concerns; these factors left fewer opportunities for the sort of long-term engagement that characterised documentary. Perhaps consequently, photojournalism also often dealt with things more singularly, and in its relationship with text, it often acted as an accompaniment to words rather than their equal.Bush, Lewis. ‘Photojournalism’s First Century’. Witness, 24 January 2019. https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/photojournalisms-first-century-79645873e363 There are of course exceptions to these definitions, as there are to any that encompass such huge fields; for example, several historically significant documentary projects, including Lewis Hine’s work on child labour, were not self-initiated.Sampsell-Willmann, Kate. 2009. Lewis Hine as Social Critic. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. More important is what unified these two practices: their shared use of photography as a form of didactic communication, which could serve to inform and edify audiences.

Lewish Bush Men Dancing in a Coffee House an illustration from Tobias Smolletts The Expedition of Humphry Clinker London 1793

‘Men Dancing in a Coffee House’, an illustration from Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (London, 1793), Vol. 1

Lewish Bush Paris Cafe Discussion

‘Discussing the War in a Paris Café’, The Illustrated London News, 17 September 1870

So how were these related practices ever imagined as a force of change? The answer lies in the time period from which both fields began to emerge, an era when democracy was on the march and a growing number of people were being enfranchised. Photojournalism worked in concert with expanding democracies by communicating information to audiences, which aided in the creation of an informed citizenry, an essential part of a healthy democracy.Sampson, Anthony. 1993. The Essential Anatomy of Britain: Democracy in Crisis, San Diego, Harcourt Publishers Ltd College Publishers Only a citizenry equipped with accurate and impartial information about the essential issues of the day could properly debate them and reach rational conclusions in the free rhetorical space of what Jurgen Habermas called ‘the public sphere’.Habermas, Jurgen. 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, The MIT Press These conclusions could then be used to make decisions as part of democratic institutions and practices, most obviously at the ballot box. Politicians would in turn take note and, once elected, would enact the will of the people, or else risk their wrath at the next poll.

While seldom explicitly explained to us as students or trainees, the assumptions inherent in this model about the functioning of journalism and democracy are programmed into photojournalists at an early stage. The consequence of that programming is that we take this model to be incontrovertible and unchallengeable. We never stop to ask if it makes sense because it is largely invisible to us, and we regard what are actually choices as the exact opposite: we see them as the only sensible way of doing things. An obvious example of this is the way this model influences the idea that a successful photograph reaches millions of people, while one which reaches a handful is a failure, irrespective of who those handful are.

Old assumptions

Now, we face a situation in which photojournalism that reaches millions seems to have little effect, and this is a model we need to urgently scrutinise. We need to revisit its assumptions about the way journalism, audiences and democracy all function, assumptions formed in an age before digital technologies. If these assumptions prove outdated or false, then in turn the choices we make based on them may also be wrong. For reasons of brevity, I’ll draw attention to just three major assumptions, but there are many others worth probing.

A first, striking assumption, and one we can’t seem to avoid, is the claim that photographs have any influence on people at all. We can argue this to be the case at least in so far as photographs are carriers of information and that we may sometimes use that information to make conscious choices. For example, many people demonstrably changed the language they use regarding the mass movement of people in the wake of Alan Kurdi’s death, and politicians appeared to at least briefly echo these sentiments.Vis, Farida, Faulkner, Simon, D’Orazio, Francesco, and Proitz, Lin. 2005. ‘The Iconic Image on Social Media’. In Picturing the Social: Transforming Our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data Research. http://visualsocialmedialab.org/projects/the-iconic-image-on-social-media Also important to note is that photographs change us in ways we are sometimes not even aware of. Studies have shown changes ranging from the distortion of our memoriesSacchi, D. L. M., Agnoli, F., and Loftus, E. F. 2007. ‘Changing history: Doctored photographs affect memory for past public events’. Applied Cognitive Psychology 21 no.8: 1005-1022. to more profound changes in brain chemistry caused by regular exposure to certain types of photographs.Huesmann, L. Rowell. 2010. ‘Psychological Processes Promoting the Relation Between Exposure to Media Violence and Aggressive Behavior by the Viewer’. Journal of Social Issues 42: 125–39.

Even if we accept that photography has the power to consciously or unconsciously influence us—in other words, to change us on an individual level—we still need to accept certain caveats. One is that this power is certainly challenged by issues that were less prevalent in photojournalism’s early days. These include the massive increase in the quantity of available photography as well as the widespread loss of faith in the veracity of images and in the practice of journalism more broadly.Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report 2019. https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2019-03/2019_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report.pdf?utm_source=website&utm_medium=global_report&utm_campaign=downloads It is also important to note that photographs can be forces of bad change just as readily as they can good. The photojournalist Gordon Parks, noting his success in changing lives with his photographs, said that, ‘in hindsight, I sometimes wonder if it might not have been wiser to have left those lives untouched’.Parks, Gordon. 1978. Flavio. New York, Norton

A second significant assumption in this model is the way it sees the citizenry engaging with the information derived from photojournalism. The arrival of the digital public sphere has upended much of what was understood about its analogue predecessor. The notion of a citizenry meeting in public spaces to debate the news now seems remarkably quaint, replaced as it has been by the sympathetic echo chambers and vitriolic silos of social media. We are now far more likely to debate virtually; we are algorithmically forced together with ideological compatriots from whom we hear little dissent and who will often reinforce rather than challenge our interpretations of the information journalism provides.Barberá, Pablo, Jost, John T, Nagler, Jonathan, Tucker, Joshua A. Bonneau, Richard, 2015. ‘Tweeting from left to right: Is online political communication more than an echo chamber?’ Psychological Science
26, no.10: 1531–1542.
The original techno-optimism about the global village of the Internet has given rise instead to highly insular and adversarial tribes that challenge democracy rather than empower it.

Even for those intent on serious debates of the news, discourse is made challenging by the digital fragmentation of the media environment, a landscape where news, opinion and entertainment are increasingly indistinguishable. When rigorously researched news mixes readily with churnalismA British media neologism coined by Waseem Zakir and used to describe journalism as largely consisting of repackaging press releases, entertainment and other material into news articles with minimal fact checking. , fake news and conspiracy theories, citizen discourse and debate of the form previously understood become almost impossible. The recent success of political micro-targeting of social media suggests a future in which the news media might take up a similar tactic that could see each citizen experiencing a news cycle algorithmically tailored to their profile, eroding still further that notion of common references critical to democratic debate.Bush, Lewis. ‘The Algorithmic Photojournalist’. Witness, 20 January 2017. https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/the-algorithmic-photojournalist-4f217d727101

A third and final assumption, then, is that, as an electorate, we can reach some consensus and turn to the institutions of democracy to address the issues that concern us. As already noted, democracy emerged in lockstep with journalism; the golden age of journalism occurred at a time of ever widening enfranchisement, and it should be little surprise that a decline in one is mirrored in the other. Today, democracy looks distinctly unsteady, itself undermined by digital technologies that have evolved far more quickly than democracy itself. This has combined, perhaps again not coincidently, with the polarisation of the electorate in many countries, a growing decline in confidence that democracy works and politicians serve our interest and the apparently irresistible global rise of plutocrats, kleptocrats and autocrats.https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/31/the-countries-where-people-are-most-dissatisfied-with-how-democracy-is-working/

Can democracy still address the problems that the electorate identifies as pressing? This is a question demanding far greater discussion than this text permits, and in any case, it’s probably too soon to tell. But if in the coming years we reach the unhappy conclusion that it increasingly can’t, then this may demand further reconsideration of the model most photojournalists subscribe to. In an era of authoritarian demagogues, themselves subject to the often demagogic influence of contemporary media, we may have to reassess the core journalistic tenet that producing work that reaches millions of people is the way to create change. It’s a dark admission, but maybe we’ve entered a stage in which many seemingly robust democracies are now subject to only a handful of people, or perhaps even just one person, wielding the power to make the changes that we want to see.

This question, like so many, comes down to a matter of whether we believe means or ends are most important. For too long, photojournalists have relied on formulas of action derived from a very old model of how photojournalism creates change. We’ve too often regarded the means as sacrosanct, with the result that the ultimate ends we want to achieve go unfulfilled. W. Eugene Smith, one of the illuminating lights of photojournalism and another figure whose photographs can demonstrably be shown to have created change, once famously responded to criticism of his use of manipulation by pointing out that he did not create the rules of photojournalism and was under no obligation to follow them.Smith, Eugene W. ‘I Didn’t Write the Rules, Why Should I Follow Them?’ Lens (blog), 3 January 2013. https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/03/w-eugene-smith-i-didnt-write-the-rules-why-should-i-follow-them/ In these desperate times, I think we need to recognise that abiding by inherited dogmas about the function of photojournalism does more to betray our forebearers than honour them. If we want to create the sort of change that the documentary photographers and photojournalists of the past achieved, then perhaps we need to stop emulating them.

Lewis Bush works across media and platforms to visualise forms of contemporary power. His projects have explored topics including the property development of London and the democratic deficit of intelligence gathering. He has exhibited, published and taught internationally and lectures about documentary photography at University of the Arts London.

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