Recently, while scrolling aimlessly through my Facebook newsfeed, a picture caught my eye. A friend had shared an article and the cover photo was three beautiful, slender, fashionable women posing in front of a historic building while a homeless man, in his socks, sat on the steps. The title was “These 75 Iconic Photos Will Define the 21st Century So Far. Everyone Needs to See This.”
Although not usually one to bow to the “everyone needs to see this” card, I clicked. The pictures were interesting, for sure – sometimes touching, sometimes simply to see what can be vaguely considered “defining”. But when I got maybe about 10 pictures in, I stopped. The picture was of a U.S Marine watching the statue of Saddam Hussein fall in Iraq. I don’t find the picture itself particularly striking – I stopped because it made me remember a previous class I took, called Propaganda and War. We looked specifically at the situation surrounding this statue’s fall, and what it represented – and what it was held up to represent. To make a long story short, the picture is at best deceptive – the crowd in the background was the entire population of the square, not a small section of a mob; the striking visual story of the citizens of a country pulling their leader from power is in fact an out of lens U.S tank; the anger that spurred the decision to tear down the monument was actually a decision by U.S. military leadership (with maybe some citizen unrest) that took almost an entire day to build enough momentum to actually remove the statue. This is an “iconic” photograph and, like so much else about the invasion into Iraq, it’s a very carefully crafted fabrication.
It made me think, though, as I kept scrolling. Every image I encountered I had to stop and wonder, Who took that? And what did they do after?
Did the person behind the camera of the very next picture – a child separated from her family during a fight – help the solider who held her find her family?
How did the photographer of the tsunami waves stick around to take photos of the aftermath? Did they help clean up, distribute food, rebuild?
Was the camera man or women who took the “heart-wrenching” picture of the mother and child at an emergency feeding center there only to document? Or did they put down their equipment and lend a hand?
And what about the photographer who snapped “An indigenous woman holds her child while trying to resist the advance of Amazonas state policemen in Manaus who have been sent to evict natives”? Did the advancing lines part around them? Or were they pushed back by the policemen as well?
The 75 images collected all have a story to tell. Sometimes, certainly, the most powerful thing a person with a camera can do is document what they see and make sure the world knows what’s happening. But when the only thing that person does is document, what does that do to the person or thing being documented? In my opinion, rather than make it more sympathetic, it removes the problem. A well captured photograph can bring about an explosion of sympathy and knowledge for its subject; a well captured collection of photographs threatens to become a storyline. A storyline is entertainment; a storyline builds a world for other photographers to keep building on. A storyline is something that develops a life of its own, until any documenting that happens may as well be posed for all that it represents reality.
I’m not saying photography can’t do wonderful things; I’m not saying photography hasn’t done amazing things. But I do think we always need to keep in mind Who took this? And why? because photography, for all that it perfectly captures the image in front of it, can just as easily be made deceptive as the written word.