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Inciting Social Change Through Photography

I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of photography in inciting social change. Today, photographers seem to be a dime a dozen. With today's exceptional cameras almost anyone can capture a halfway decent image. Sometimes they even get lucky and manage to tell a story. Yet, very little of today's photography does anything to incite social change—to bring about just actions and merciful acts ...

If I am honest with myself, my photography likewise does little to incite social change. I find this rather ironic, for many of those master photographers who have influenced my photography, inciting social change was a major theme of their photography. I think of the Photo League (1936-1952) centered in New York City who saw the camera as a weapon in the social and political conflicts of their day, who saw film as a way to document these struggles, not merely to preserve for history, but to incite social change. And while not photographers, the Ash Can Eight, a group of early 20th c. realist painters who use the brush to capture, as did the Photo League, the urban milieu in a way that highlighted urban poverty and the daily of urban living.

As a person of faith I am motivated by the words of the Prophet Micah, among others, who calls us to live justly and to show mercy. This also influences my desire to have my photography incite social change.

The issues that these prophets, photographers and painters highlighted have not gone away. They still exist, sometimes out in the open, other times, hidden. And it is not just an urban issue, either. The question I ask myself is how can I use my photography to bring about social change? I grapple with finding an answer.

In the grappling – using both the Photo League and the Ash Can Eight as my examples – three overarching principles have become clear:

First, I alone am not going to effect any social change (although that does not mean that I should not try), nor can I work in a vacuum. As with both the Photo League and Ash Can Eight there has to be a venue today where photographers who desire to see their work incite social change can come together to encourage, explore urban issues, critique and promote each others' work, and mount exhibits.

Secondly, to incite social change through one's photography, the photographer must draw close to the people being photographed, not just physically, but emotionally. The photographer needs to feel the story.

Thirdly, I need to cross-pollinate myself with all of the liberal arts. I need to hang around, not only those whom I am photographing, but also those who use the liberal arts as a means to explore and incite social change; artists, dancers, musicians, writers, poets, to name but a few.

As I said, I am still struggling with the “how” to use my photography to incite social change. Perhaps, you might want to join me as a photographer, artist, or as a person who wants to incite social change, who wants to see just actions and merciful acts prevail. Maybe together we can we can explore answers and create opportunities to incite social change through our work.