At the core of photography is the ability to witness.
At the core of photography is the ability to witness. As it stands at the beginning of the 21st century this seems obvious, though at the beginning of the 20th century it was a revelation. Scenes of war, oppression of citizens, large-scale protests and civil rights movements would all be communicated to the world, for the first time through the eyes of somebody who was undeniably there.
This new form of communication, one which couldn’t be as easily manipulated to fit a narrative as a written or spoken account, was considered a pinnacle of truth. If it was captured on film, it most certainly happened. In modern times however, trust in photography has come under scrutiny due to famous cases of scene manipulation and image editing. The intent and background of a photographer can be considered as important as the photographs themselves. Despite this contemporary trepidation, when we talk about many the most notable events of the past century we talk from the perspective of the photographs of those events. As human beings we have an innate need to picture, to imagine an event as it unfolds. By providing imagery to do this work for us, photographers have spent a century providing simple insights into complex situations.
During the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s, photography is considered to have been a monumental tool for communicating the struggles of the American black population to the world. Newspapers were flooded with imagery showcasing the ways in which peaceful protesters were being mistreated at the hands of the police. Powerful, moving imagery was cause for global attention and national reflection on the part of the American public who in some cases were seeing for the first time the extent to which violence was used as a means to control activists and silence human rights advocates. There are many reports of photographers and journalists having their lenses spray painted black and their film removed from their cameras mid-roll by the police in an effort to erase their wrongdoing during these times. Despite this, photographers and journalists would continue to document the experiences of activists until denial was no longer able to be sought by the police and state governments.
These early exposures of police action weren’t the only applications of photography during the civil rights movement though. State officials would also utilise cameras to photograph protesters and activists for the purposes of identifying them later. This use of capturing ones identity in order to follow them up at a later date has since been regularly used as a tactic of control by police and state agencies. In the 21st century while we all bear witness to imagery of police brutality captured by civilians on their mobile phones, governments in countries around the world are utilising security cameras with facial recognition technology to keep tabs on their citizens comings, goings and political affiliations. The role of photography in both government enforcement and social activism it would seem is more strongly interwoven now than ever.
In the digital age, you have to be ready to have your photograph taken at any moment. For better or for worse, this reality has forever altered the way that we interact with each other in public spaces. When you relegate this acknowledgement to the desire to take control of a situation, you end up with the kind of public scrutiny that China has faced in the years since 2014.
When the now referred to as Umbrella Movement first began to break out on the streets of Hong Kong, the use of force by the police and warlike tactics of the protesters began circulating the international community immediately. As the Hong Kong police began to disband the protests, the world was watching. In 2019 as more large-scale protest efforts were staged in Hong Kong again, the world was watching. This led to reactions around the globe and actions like Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights demanding that the Hong Kong government conduct “prompt, independent, impartial investigation” on the police’s use of force against the protesters.
It’s not to say that photography was the major catalyst for the attention that the international community would direct towards Hong Kong or these protests. That would be an exceptional minimisation of the work that is carried out by activists and citizens. If you can though, try to imagine that all things were the same, yet there was no imagery of these protests and no visual documentation of the wrongdoing has occurred against these communities. Would the world believe these communities accounts over the official information lines of their governments? Did the world, historically before photography, pay as much attention to international events of injustice as it does now? Again, a lot has changed since the 19th century, but would the way we communicate global events have changed at the same rate had we not invented a way to promptly share visual accounts of these events?
The women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th, early 20th centuries was quite possibly the first ever large scale social movement recorded through photography. It speaks volumes of the time to say that one of the photographers working to capture this movement was Christina Broom, the first ever female press photographer in the United Kingdom. Whilst Broom never publicly declared any allegiance for or against the women’s suffrage movement, her imagery serves as a great reminder to the visual implications of the photographers connection to an event. Broom’s imagery of the movement depicts women in powerful stature, often shot from a lower perspective the women in her imagery appear large, dignified and relaxed. By way of being a woman in England during this time, let alone being the only woman to have ever existed in her professional field, Broom’s images of the movement tell not only their story, but her own.
This is a more evolving discussion than ever in our modern photographic landscape – the intent of the photographer. The stories being told by photographers historically, have often not been their own to tell. It has to be acknowledged that historically, the majority of photographers being paid to cover the civil rights movement were white and the majority covering the women’s suffrage movement were male. Until recent memory, the majority of photographers sending imagery out from inside a war zone would have been citizens of the country that was invading that war zone. This is a complex issue and there are many facets, reasons and explanations for why we have had such little diversity in the field of photojournalism over the last century. Regardless, this is a history that photography has to address in order to be able to move forward.
History is remembered by those who told the story. We all need to work as a community to ensure that these stories are being told from a desire to remember history as it happened, not as we wanted it to happen. Not as a portfolio piece, but as real events which can force entire populations to stop their lives in order to work towards a better future. As long as photography can make space for this, we will continue to see visual storytelling affect real change in our world and be able to build trust back into our beloved medium. As much as we have to honour the past generations of photography and the important work they did, we can also acknowledge and build a future where photography’s demographics is as varied as its applications. Just keep in mind, sometimes that will involve putting down our cameras and allowing somebody else to tell their story.