Never Underestimate the Power of Your Camera

Every time you pick up your camera, you have the potential to perform a revolutionary act.

Photography should be a kick in the establishment, a cure for the commonplace, a powerful explosion of new ideas.

Photography should be an act of defiance against banality and conformity. It should be as violent to the mind as a thousand thunderstorms. It should rip apart the accepted social fabric. It should be a declaration of war on everything we take for granted and accept as obvious.

It should point, accuse, denounce — and solve. All in one frame.

A Window Blasted Open

Photography should incessantly question reality with the passion of a martyr. It should make our leaders fear it, our priests condemn it. It should know no frontiers, no borders, and no cultural identity. It should have the same impact east of Bangkok and south of Lima.

Photography should be lifted high and proud by those who wish to change the world. It should be a constant complaint — and a constant demand for reform and social progress.

It should beg for perfection, over and over, pointing out every little detail of injustice, abuse, destruction and greed. It should rattle every misconception and drive every glib rationalization into pathetic silence.

Photography should haunt you in your sleep, follow you all day and make you feel naked.

Photography should not be a cozy, familiar blanket that keeps you warm on a cold winter night. Photography, instead, should be the act of removing the blanket suddenly — exposing you to the freezing winds.

It should be a window blasted open.

Chairs of Indifference

Too much of what we see today in photography is a sea of banality, repetition and dullness. It is status quo and no more. A long, straight road of boring, predigested concepts.

Like frozen dinners on an assembly line, today’s images wait to be reheated. Millions and millions of photographs form a constant stream that passes by at a low buzz, so that we hardly even notice anymore.

We can blame the commercial stock photography industry, I suppose, for making us forget what powerful tools our cameras can be. Slowly, the reign of the medium has taken over.

“Medium,” as in medium quality, medium content, medium effect. Photography has become an industry of expectedness, where passion and spontaneity are replaced by technocrats shooting bullet points.

So blame the industry. But let’s save at least a little blame for photographers, too.

It’s time to make images that shove people out of their chairs of indifference again. It’s time to make people rethink everything they ever took for granted. It’s time to create photographs that make those who view them want to change their whole lives.

Am I asking too much of you?

Then exactly how much less should I expect?

18 Responses to “Never Underestimate the Power of Your Camera”

  1. Do you want your work to be forgotten in an instant, or to resonate for generations to come?

    The talent to achieve what you write about is rare - those who have it should nurture it and aim high.

  2. Photos should have "emotional content" strong enough to connect with people and not just a superficial like. Good images in the history of the medium are still strong today, even if made 150 years ago!

  3. While I agree in concept with the statement of this article I disagree with the fact that only using photography to illuminate the negative in our world is what makes it powerful.

    Using your camera to expose the true and raw beauty of the world around us can be just has powerful. Why should we fight for change and struggle to make a difference if we feel there is nothing to fight "for"?

    A powerful image does not only come in the form of defiance, an act of war or a question of reality. The photographer who only focuses on these things has become a cynic. There is still beauty and love and tolerance within our world and it is up to artists and photographers alike to remind everyone that these are indeed the things we must preserve, protect and fight for.

    So yes - never underestimate the power of your camera. But remember power comes in many forms and the strongest form of that is the power of love. Without it nobody would care about the photographs of the suffering, the inhumane, the injustice ... we can not leave beauty or love out of the picture.


  4. My entire life I've heard people raging against banality in one pursuit or another. I've done it myself many times.
    The raging process has itself become banal to my ears. I no longer feel myself qualified to pronounce what art is banal and what art is not. Feels a bit like deciding who the cool kids are, or worse, are not.

  5. I completely agree with Alesia's comment. There is great validity in pushing the envelope in imagery. However, photography SHOULD be the blanket that keeps you warm at night as well as that freezing wind that hits your face when the blanket is removed. It should tell stories of BOTH love and hope, BOTH hate and despair.

    The concept that it must tell tales of destruction, negativity and pain in order to be relevant and true is a narrow view of the world.

    True, I agree, there is much repetition and banality in imagery today. However, that exists on both sides of the road. Too many photographers are obsessed with whatever brown faces are suffering and telling "poor them" stories instead of using those same images to channel hope, power and inform. They are pain voyeurs who are deriving pleasure from their own self-centered thought that their personal and intellectual depth increases with every image of pain displayed. They are melanin chasers who are more exploitive than they are exploratory and that also has to stop.

    Two previous Blackstar posts touched on this: and

    Photographers have to tell different types of stories...stories that are relevant to a variety of existences. They have to tell the stories for truthful reasons that are beyond their own needs and personal existences, whether those stories are those within the realms of comfort or without. Both comfort and discomfort are necessary to truly see the world as it is.

  6. A great polemic, a brilliant manifesto, a grand ideal!

    The "constant stream that passes by at a low buzz" though could also be called life, and photography has always been too many things at once, even for photographers.

    Maybe we should stop looking at pictures ad nauseam, to clear our vision... and to let our eyes and minds start over?

  7. @ Alesia & Trudy. Nowhere did I write to a "only using photography to illuminate the negative in our world". Actually, some of the strongest images are images of beauty, love and happiness. One of my favorite, for example, is Eugene Smith photograph of his two little kids walking hand in hand towards the light.
    The images have to be a violent statement, not the subjects.It can be a violent statement about happiness or love. Actually it should
    Images should not be a warm blanket like those soft focus cat pictures you see on numerous postcards.
    @ Trudy : You realize , one of the previous post you quote was also written by me ?
    @ Jonahh. If an ideal is too hard for you to reach, then it is you who has a problem, not the ideal.

  8. Thanks for replying Paul. I like what that previous article of yours was not so much about who authored it for me as it was about the points that it made...I see writers write contradictory articles all of the time so I view it by article, not by person as this is not about the writer, but the article subject.

    The reason why I wrote my comment as is is because of these points (and others) in your article:
    [Photography should incessantly question reality with the passion of a martyr. It should make our leaders fear it, our priests condemn it.]

    [It should beg for perfection, over and over, pointing out every little detail of injustice, abuse, destruction and greed.]

    Though your exact words did not state the phrase that you re-quoted from Alesia, that describes the mood that I got of from the article. Many viewers and photographers associate negative connotations like banality and repetition with beauty/love imagery more than they do with imagery of destruction/despair. I don't though...I see it on both sides...I see it too much and for bad reasons like I mentioned.

    From your follow up comment, I see that you did not mean it that way, which is good. Glad that this article has people thinking, regardless of their views. Good stuff.

  9. @Paul - perhaps I read the article wrong or digested it incorrectly. But I will say that I've never known a image, such as the one of Mr. Smith's children you described, to cause " ... our leaders fear it, our priests condemn it" - which I took away as the basis of your article.

    I think we have to be cautious how we express these sentiments. Too many photographers / artists are eager to feature death, injustice and destruction without including the "good stuff" as well. It can leave those of us who feel the need to celebrate these good things - perhaps even in defiance of all the bad stuff happening around us - with a bad taste in our mouth, as though our viewpoints are not valid.

  10. Alesia, I get what you're saying, but to Paul's point: an image of a black man and white woman in a loving embrace would have been something feared by our leaders and condemned by priests not too long ago.

  11. @Scott - Very true, and you are correct that at one time such an image would indeed inflame the emotions of even political leaders & priests. I stand corrected.

    My only real point however is that not EVERY image has to be so challenging to our social views in order to "be" photography. Perhaps a certain "type" of photography - but not to define the art as a whole.

    I still believe that it was an error to word such an article in a way that leaves one to feel that if a photo isn't challenging - in it's content - then it simply doesn't "count". There is nothing wrong with simple joy and pleasure being brought forward by a simple photograph.

    As long as it pleases the viewer and evokes some emotion -whether it be a smile, a tear or a laugh - it serves a purpose and in "my humble opinion" is photography. I just don't think we should sound as though we are trying demean all photos that don't fit this articles definition.

    Perhaps I'm too harsh but I've spent too many years at too many galleries dealing with too many people who scoffed at anything that wasn't offensive or challenging to the masses .. and to be honest with you I'm tired of their attitudes. Perhaps if this world appreciated more simplicity we wouldn't be in as many messes are we currently are.

    Again - if I misinterpreted the intent of this article, I sincerely apologize. I only feel that somebody needs to defend those artists & photographers who choose not to do just what others say they should and instead do what they love and brings them joy and hopefully does the same for their audiences.

  12. Thanks Alesia 🙂

  13. a sad fact, though, that a lot of the great documentary and art photographers who shot pictures that made us all think and ponder also ended up dead of starvation, unpublished and alone, so to speak. Much of the FPA work never even got seen in its immediate lifetime -- the FPA couldn't give it away to newspapers and magazines for free.

  14. Well.... OK.... but in today's Corporate America, you are not going to see much photography that is in any way anti-establishment. And, alas, few folks take the time and effor to visit photo galleries.

  15. sorry. senior moment. for fpa read WPA; for senior moment read senile moment. Either way, not a lot of support for photos we have to think about.

  16. Ian: I am old enough that I assusmed you meant WPA when you wrote FPA. You are not alone when worrying about senior moments. Many fine WPA photographs were seen via publication in magazines and photo books... but you are right, a huge number of fine photographs were never seen, and I assume they are now lost forever.

  17. I enjoyed reading this and must agree with the "window blasted open" analogy. For me personally, I try to strive to create images the invite people to take a second look. Many of today's images are mundane and uninteresting. I only hope that as the mundane becomes the norm those photographers possessing and creating true visual artistry will rise to the top because of the stark contrast between their work and the mediocre masses.

  18. Very interesting topic , thankyou for putting up. "I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world." by Socrates.

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