Published 18/01/16, Exeposé Issue 647
Photography is a key player in our lives. With Instagram profiles to upkeep, it has become a major, if not essential, part of every day life. There is an urge to tell the world where we have been, what we have seen and the people we’ve met. We want to see what fashion and food trends we should be following, and what celebrities are doing with their lives. It is then, a big cultural trendsetter.
Whilst technological developments mean many of us can now create a work of art on our phones, it is easy to forget that this obsession with photography is not a merely a recent phenomenon nor a temporary fashion. The picture through the viewfinder has always been socially and politically influential. From documentary photography to advertising, we are constantly faced with images that have the power of sticking in our minds.
Adverts and media campaigns choose the most striking photographs that make us look twice. Whether it is a sports car winding through the Alps or a watch on the wrist of an A-List celebrity, it is the image that sells.
Seeing these images on billboards, bus stop posters, on our tablets, in galleries or in shop windows, makes that dream life seem touchable, and our aspirations quickly become imagined for us.
Then take the other end of the advertising spectrum, charities. They too still need to grab your attention, but the hard-hitting, poverty-stricken photographs and television adverts have the power stop us in our tracks. They are images that need few words, of a world that may be a thousand miles from your own. Yet as with the luxury items, we are confronted with a situation we may never experience.
It is this confrontation that is also fundamental to the impact of documentary photography. As an inherently honest and representative form, photography has the ability to hold an atmosphere in stillness. In 1936 war photographer Robert Capa captured his now iconic Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death. This image was published in a French magazine and held as a universal anti-war statement.
It is not just documenting a significant event that is important. Photography serves as a microphone for unheard voices. It’s about the photographer behind the camera, who sees the importance of capturing what may seem mundane. In 1950 Elliott Erwitt photographed the segregated water fountains in North Carolina. Such images survive to remind us of the injustice of social segregation, and speaks volumes about how much has since changed.
Photography today allows us to share the present moment, but its role in history is invaluable. Photographer Jeff Widener engraved into history the brave, unknown figure that stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square that were sent to brutally kill protesters. As TIME magazine reported it, he “revived the world's image of courage. It is when history disguises itself as allegory that the camera writes it best”.
Film or digital, photographs have the ability to transcend time. They allow for shared experiences, communication of the unspeakable, and breathe creativity into the mundane. They reflect on the changing state of society, providing both artefacts and guidance. As computer generated images become more common, the spirit and spontaneity of authentic photographs will continue to lie at the heart of its strength.