On the cover of its Saturday color supplement in July 2022, Britain’s left-liberal broadsheet The Guardian drew the reader in with a promise of “60 Images that Changed the World”. The article inside was more modest in its claims. Entitled “Standing in the Way of Control”, it rowed back on the hyperbolic cover headline, offering instead to ‘celebrate the images and people that have changed how we see the world’. The online version of the same feature offered something else again, namely to ‘look back at some of the images that helped rewrite laws and change the way we think’. There is a significant amount of slippage here. Do photographs change the world, or change the way we see the world (which may or may not amount to the same thing)? What does it mean to ‘help’ to rewrite laws and change the way we think? Does photography actually function in this way at all, or are people the true agents of change? Across these headlines, sub-heads, and lead paragraphs, there is deep uncertainty about the kind of agency that can be ascribed to photography.
And yet the very fact that this article was published in the first place is a symptom of the entrenched assumption that photography can have direct effects in the world that we would never dream of attributing to other media. Publications devoted to “Ten Sculptures that Made History” or “Ten Newspaper Articles that Changed the World” are almost unthinkable, but digital and print media are awash with features that claim precisely these things for photography.
There are numerous overlapping reasons for this. First among them is the epistemological privilege accorded to the faculty of sight, a combined product of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific empiricism, and enshrined in everyday ocular metaphors (many of them Greek in origin): seeing is believing; ‘I see’ (meaning ‘I understand’); notions of having insight, an overview, being blind to the truth, and so on. This then allies to the assumed evidentiary status of the photograph as a purportedly truth-telling medium. No matter how much ink is spilled explaining that the photographic image is as constructed and conventionalized as any other representation, the way in which an image is produced, involving photochemical or photoelectric changes in response to exposure to light, carries a powerful connotation of objectivity. The ideology of objectivity is central to the operations of the press too: photography and journalism reciprocally reinforce each other’s supposed evidential power.
In the case of war and conflict, there is the additional factor of what Pippa Oldfield terms the ‘cult of the war photographer’: the notion of the heroic individual braving death to secure images that tell the truth about war. This is not to denigrate the mortal danger and psychological jeopardy to which photojournalists expose themselves (at least five photojournalists have been killed in the line of duty in Ukraine, for example). Nor is it to cast aspersions on photojournalists’ ethical and political commitments. It is simply to note that within the broader structures of photographic reporting, the image of the heroic photojournalist feeds into the claim that making visible can produce political change.
One thing we can be sure of is that the desire that photography will affect political change is accompanied by the fear that it will. This is why, since the First World War, the military has operated forms of censorship, either by means of direct control of publications or by embedding journalists and photographers with combat units, the quid pro quo being access to the front line in return for strict rules of engagement. It is also why, throughout the history of photography, we see what might be called action at the level of the signifier: attempts to suppress or discredit images, and the persecution or demonization of photographers and editors, displace critique of the things they show, such as atrocity and war.
In his book Watching Babylon, Nicholas Mirzoeff discusses the global visual culture of the second Iraq war and notes: ‘When Al Jazeera did display the bodies of some dead Americans, there was a storm of protest as if the dead military body has become taboo, so that its broadcast – rather than the violence of war itself – was the cause of the offence’ (p. 80). This is not a new phenomenon. Ernst Friedrich, an anarchist pacifist in 1920s Germany, published a photo book called Krieg dem Kriege (War against War). In it, he depicted dozens of corpses, executions, and other atrocities, and the appallingly facial injuries suffered by veterans. He also exhibited the images of facial disfigurement in the display window of his Anti-War Museum in central Berlin. The city’s police removed seventy-seven photographs from the display, and the executive of the Bavarian Military League submitted the following petition to the Munich courts: ‘War against War represents the most groundless and infamous slander against the old Imperial Army and by means of malicious juxtapositions represents the intention to denigrate the Imperial Army and render individual members thereof contemptible. We object to the continued existence of this book’. When Ron Haeberle’s photographs of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam were published in November 1969, there was a public outcry in the United States, aimed not at the cold-blooded killing of civilians by the US military, but at the newspapers for printing the photographs. The same fate had befallen Eddie Adams’s photograph depicting General Loan’s summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong in February of the previous year.
Such practices continue. When, immediately before the cease-fire that ended the first Gulf War in 1991, Kenneth Jarecke took a photograph of the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier in his burned-out jeep, he believed it would communicate the truth of war to viewers back home. Yet as an article in The Atlantic explains, high-level editors of news periodicals in the US refused to publish the image at the time in order to preserve the notion of a good, clean war and to ‘protect’ their readership. And when Britain’s Observer published the image in March 1991, Aidan Sullivan, the pictures editor for Britain’s right-leaning Sunday Times, criticized The Observer’s decision to publish such an explicit image: “We would have thought our readers could work out that a lot of people had died in those vehicles. Do you have to show it to them?”
In none of these cases did photography impact on government policy, nor can it be shown to have genuinely changed public attitudes. Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War was published at a point when the anti-war and pacifist movements in the Weimar Republic were already running out of steam, and long before the Nazi seizure of power the movement had dissolved into factionalism and irrelevance. The My Lai photographs, like many other Vietnam photographs, did not change the course of the war. They may, as Patrick Hagopian argues, have provided compelling evidence of military misconduct that had been long suspected and much reported on in textual form. But US public approval of the Vietnam war continued to fluctuate into the early 1970s, and was not decisively swayed by atrocity photographs. Indeed, they remain utterly atypical of the vast bulk of Vietnam imagery published in newspapers or beamed into living-room TV sets. Their iconic status today gives them a posthumous importance that they did not possess at the time. A similar point could be made about much of the visual coverage of Bosnia, as well as Jareke’s Gulf War photograph: how could a single still image counteract the propaganda value of TV images, broadcast nightly, that cast Operation Desert Storm as a video-game war?
Even the most celebrated historic cases of photography’s alleged power to change the world turn out to be far more complex in their operation and ambiguous in their results than we might think. In 1906, Mark Twain published King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a monologue written from the point of view of King Leopold II of Belgium, in which he rants about the condition of his colony, the Congo Free State. Towards the end of the pamphlet, Leopold is imagined bemoaning his inability to suppress the evidence of mutilations provided by the ‘incorruptible kodak […]. The only witness I couldn’t bribe.’
One such Kodak was wielded by Alice Seeley Harris, a British missionary who photographed mutilated slaves, floggings, and other atrocities in the Congo Free State. But her photographs did not act alone; they were integrated into an extensive apparatus of persuasion. Together with her husband, John Hobbis Harris, she presented the photographs across the UK and the US in the form of lantern-slide shows. From 1906, the Harrises worked under the auspices of the Congo Reform Association (CRA). The CRA was founded in 1904 by the journalist E. D. Morel, with the support of Roger Casement, Britain’s consul in the Congo Free State, whose report on atrocities for the British government was a major stimulus to the campaign against Leopold. Through a network of auxiliaries, the CRA distributed literature, raised funds, and prepared standardized lantern-slide lectures for ministers to use in their sermons throughout Europe and the US.
To an extent, the CRA was successful: Leopold eventually bowed to pressure and sold the Congo Free State to the Belgian government in 1908, though misgovernment and exploitation continued and Belgian rule ended only in 1960. The key point, though, is that photography could claim to be efficacious only because it was deployed in multi-media campaigns that mobilized eye-witness reports, didactic interpretations, and the rhetoric of Christian reform alongside the power of the visual image and, more importantly, was integrated into the infrastructures of the protestant churches, investigative journalism, and international diplomacy.
Other cases of photography-led political change tell the same story. To take one example: Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor in the early twentieth century were taken when he was employed by the National Child Labour Committee (NCLC), a private reform charity. Concentrating on industries that employed large numbers of children and in which detriment to their health was obvious, Hine photographed workers in Virginia glass factories and Pennsylvanian coal mines, bean snippers in the canneries of Delaware, and spinners in the cotton mills of Georgia and New England. As well as photographing, Hine noted precise times and locations at which his images were taken, the birth dates of the children, and witness statements from them about the nature of their work. He even measured their height relative to the buttons on his waistcoat.
The NCLC, like the CRA, made extensive use of lantern slide shows. They also used Hine’s photographs in pamphlets, posters, and articles for periodicals such as the Child Labor Bulletin and the philanthropic journal Survey. By 1912, the NCLC was printing six million pages per year across all its publishing activities. But the path to legislative reform was not down to photography or even the NCLC alone. Once again, the photographic image worked only as part of a much larger apparatus of persuasion. The United States Children’s Bureau, a federal agency devoted to children’s welfare, was established after many years of lobbying by members of the Settlement Movement and a number of women’s organizations as well as the NCLC. A federal law restricting child labor was eventually passed in 1916, though it was declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court only two years later.
This is not to dismiss the agential capability of photography. Recent posts on this forum by David Campbell and Roland Bleiker, Bronte Bratton, Tiffany Hales, and Emma Hutchison have shown that there are ways of understanding and even quantifying the impact that photography has on behavior. Both posts deal in part with NGO campaigns and their careful mobilization of image and text in order to persuade reader-viewers to contribute financially to a specific charitable cause. Even when photographs are not consciously instrumentalized in this way, they can lead to the formation of temporary affective communities that articulate themselves through charitable giving. A harrowing case in point is that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, an Iraqi refugee of Kurdish descent who drowned while attempting to sail from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek Island of Kos and whose body was photographed face-down on the sands of a Turkish beach. As a result of the image’s immediate global circulation, charities reported sizeable increases in donations. But as Bleiker, Bronte, Hales, and Hutchinson note, there is a set of counter-imagery at work that portrays migrants as security risks rather than desperate people in need of sympathy and support. These images easily reassert themselves. While the case sent ripples through the electoral politics of Canada – where Kurdi’s family had relatives – Campbell points out that it had no lasting impact on refugee policy in the EU. Meanwhile, the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean continue on a regular basis.
To return to The Guardian article with which I began, the final paragraph of the feature states: ‘These 60 images are a snapshot of a rich global history of resistance’. In other words, they have transmuted, over the course of the article, into mere representations – rather than agents – of the historical process. This is, perhaps, excessively defeatist. The formulation that comes closest to the actual state of affairs is the claim that photographs can ‘help change the world’. But we need to be clear about what this ‘help’ consists of and how it works. Bruno Latour defines an agent as ‘anything that modif[ies] a state of affairs by making a difference’, adding that a key question we need to ask is: ‘Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not?’ When we ask this of photography, the answer is clearly yes. But it is the action of the other agents that is critical: it is the apparatus of campaigning organizations, of political lobbying, of the insistent recirculation of images across various media platforms, and the harnessing of photography to the judicial process and to the discourses of human rights, social reform, political dissent, or charitable giving that enable photography to do its work.
Making visible is not enough.
This article is part of a series that includes: