Can a Photograph Still Change the World?
His face lies buried in the sand while the waves are moving in a steady stream around him. His red shirt shines bright agains the white sandy beaches and the blue sea. Almost peacefully, he appears to be asleep, until you realise he is breathing no more.
Over a year ago, a photograph of a child changed the course of European politics when for months prior, politicians had been held up in endless discussions, refusing to make any progress or change.
Alan Kurdi died as a three-year old refugee at sea, and although most people may not remember his name, millions across the globe have seen his picture. And while we can debate the ethics behind printing an image of a dead child, what we can’t deny is the power of the photo itself.
When I grew up, I believed photographs held a special power. An image could change the world! As memories, they could transport us back in time, and in journalism, they could show us the horrors we so often avoid seeing. When you come across a news article, you can choose to turn away and not read, but an image? In a split second, we get told more than any text could ever convey.
Many years ago, I had to make a decision between what was sensible and what felt right. That day, I spent my entire savings on a camera instead of aiming for a well-paid office career.
Why? Because an image can speak more than a thousand words, they say.
Throughout my life, I heard this sentence so many times and never doubted its truth. Recently though, with everybody asking to be photoshopped and journalists staging cover shots, people are more likely to doubt the honesty of a photograph than they are to believe in its authenticity.
Professionals are supposed to uphold a strong set of ethic in objective storytelling and honest documentary, yet society cranes its neck to see shocking images of injured children and bloodied civilians on the streets. Years ago, news agencies would never have published a picture of a dead toddler on the front page; nowadays, it’s an accepted tool and possibly the only way to obtain readers‘ attentions in a world polluted with images.
2.5 trillion images, to be exact.
That‘s the estimated number of photos taken in 2016. Where years ago, photojournalists would consider every shot carefully, calculating its cost and whether each scene might be worth the price, today, everybody is just snapping away. Rather than being concerned with whether their content serves a purpose, many photographers are more interested in the numbers of Instagram followers and retweets they’re getting.
In light of this, I can’t help but worry about my future in a changing industry. Print publishing was once considered a professional arena, but online, anybody can publish an image. So while this leaves more room to get started in the field, it also makes it so much harder to stay afloat, carve your own niche and whittle out some form of success.
In 2013, Chicago Sun Times let go of 28 employees in their photography department, as they were no longer needed on a regular basis. In 2015, Sports Illustrated fired their last remaining staff photographer. Just a few weeks ago, News Corp made the majority of its photographers redundant in a drastic effort to cut costs.
I spent three years working on my diploma in portrait photography and finished top of my class. Right now, I’m spending thousands of dollars to gain a degree in an industry that I always thought was so much more than just an art form. But where it used to be professionals sent on assignments in order to report events and photograph for well-known publications, now it’s auto-mode amateurs and iPhone professionals pretending to know it all.
There are still some amazing photographs out there, and one of my favourite things to do is to scroll through my Instagram feed looking at them. But where there used to be a clear distinction between hobbyists and professionals, now the office-employed 9-5 worker on vacation will call themselves a part-time photographer as soon as their snaps rack up a few-dozen likes.
With all these images constantly flowing around us, how will we be able to recognise the important ones? And if an image holds the power to change the world, what happens when we can’t spot it anymore?
Using shock as a way to gain attention in an oversaturated world, editors choose to publish morally-questionable images instead of others that would honour traditional photography ethics. This is because money and sales direct the news cycle now more than journalistic objectivity and integrity, and an image’s first task seems to be garnering clicks rather than telling the whole story.
I know that change is inevitable, and I know that great opportunities have arrived with the advent of citizen photojournalism, but working in the photography industry has definitely put a damper on my creativity more than once, making me question if this is all really worth it.
Do photos really still hold as much power as they used to?
The answer is yes, they can. To me, photography is and will always be more than just a job. It’s an art form, a way to show an opinion and sometimes instigate a reaction no one saw coming. It’s so much more than pressing a button, and I know that images can still look shit when they’re taken with a $3,000 piece of equipment. I‘ve spent countless nights sharing my bed with my camera and cuddling it through my backpack on night buses. When climbing a mountain, I’m prepared to land face-first in the dirt to hold up my camera, and when the rain season hits the streets of Bangkok, I’ll take off my coat to make sure my camera stays dry. I do this not because I can’t afford to buy new gear, but because I care and still believe photos can change the world – if we let them.
Cover by Eugene Triguba