As photographers, we often use our cameras to make money — shooting weddings, editorial, advertising, stock photography, etc. Yet the camera can do more than help us earn an income. As Dorothea Lange put it, this powerful tool can teach people “how to see without a camera.”
A Legacy of Social Activism
There’s a strong legacy of American social documentary photography beginning with 19th and 20th century photographers like Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, Milton Rogovin and others like the iconic Lange of the Farm Security Administration, employed by the federal government during the Great Depression.
These photographers didn’t profit and rarely received royalties from any of the work they did. The true reward came from raising awareness and taking action — as in the case of Lewis Hine, whose photographs of child laborers were used by the National Child Labor Committee to lobby against and end the practice.
Below I’ve highlighted three organizations continuing in the spirit of supporting photographers who document issues of concern:
A non-profit organization offering resources and support for “photographic projects whose goal is to educate the public about endangered cultures, threatened environments, or current topics of social concern.” Recent projects include photo-documentaries of local citizens affected by global climate change and African grandmothers in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, among others.
Web site that functions as both a database of nonprofits as well as a social networking site, allowing users to upload and share photos that “promote a charitable cause or bring awareness to a humanitarian need.”
This foundation’s mission is to counteract “mainstream media narratives” by “using arrestingly real, timely photographic images as a catalyst for education, cultural understanding and social action.”
Social Documentary Photography in the Web 2.0 World
How do you reach the masses when traditional media outlets as we knew them have been overwhelmingly replaced by the Internet? The viral power of digital photography and social networking sites now allow those with a message to instantly communicate and promote social reform.
In the 1980s, Simon Berry, chief executive of a rural regeneration charity in the U.K., was volunteering in Zambia when he realized he could easily buy a Coke in Third World countries, but children in those same areas were dying of preventable afflictions like dehydration.
Twenty years later Berry created ColaLife, which aims to “to leverage the distribution muscle of a multi-national corporate institution to save children’s lives in developing countries.” The campaign has recently gained buzz using social media sites like Facebook and the ColaLife Flickr group, where members upload photos of Coca-Cola advertising found in poor countries.
Berry is now in talks with Coca-Cola to enlist their help in reducing the mortality in children under the age of five from simple causes such as dehydration from diarrhea.
Another Flickr group called Social Documentary Photography & Events displays the photos of members who believe that “photography as a weapon of international expression is more effective than bullets.”
In Their Sight, In Our Minds
During his career as photographer, Jacob Riis was criticized for the methods he used — such as entering homes illegally, or causing fires with his flash. Although he worked with philanthropists to bring about change, his middle-class background often colored his perspective of his less-fortunate subjects.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of closing the disparity between the photographer and the documented. Today, there are many initiatives that aim to empower the disenfranchised through photography. The Contrast Project, for example, offers training in documentary photography and video to youth groups affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Eyes Wide Open Worldwide Inc. has strived to connect artists and children in a mentoring relationship. Since 2005, the organization has raised over $10,000 through silent auctions of the children’s photography and 100 percent of the proceeds have been used to further their arts education, plus help other children in countries like Cambodia.
Perhaps most well-known is Kids with Cameras, founded by photographer Zana Briski, whose work with kids of the red-light district in Calcutta, India was documented in the Academy Award-winning Born Into Brothels. The children’s photographs from this and other projects continue to be on view in galleries worldwide. In 2007, a benefit dinner held in New York City raised more than $300,000 toward the construction of Hope House, a safe haven and education effort for these kids of Calcutta, otherwise destined to become sex workers themselves.
In the words of Gordon Parks, “The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.” Our subjects are the reasons we pick up our cameras in the first place. So how can we as photographers use our eye-opening instruments for social change?