The power of images to change the world is often claimed, less often proven. Great achievements have been piled around the totem of photography, from the early pangs of environmental awareness to the final course and conclusions of armed conflicts. And yet photographs are just bits of paper, or today more likely abstract lines of code. These things can’t change the world, but they can change people, and people can change the world.
Photographs are not, as we once believed, a sort of window on the world. But in however an incomplete and fragmented a way they do expose us to the idea of other places, people and things. This is not about some false equivalence between seeing and experiencing. This is not to say that seeing a photograph of a drowned child on a beach is the same as standing on that beach over that small body. But it is about knowing that somewhere a child drowned, and that his death is the consequence of other things which might be more within our power to change. Photographs present the idea that things are happening, or exist, or are possible.
Photographs don’t change people drastically, few people are transformed into ardent campaigners by an encounter with a single image. Nor do photographs even necessarily change people for the better. They are just as capable of influencing us for the worse, of reinforcing negative attitudes and unrealistic expectations about the world. But if pictures really have no effect on us, if they don’t change us in some way, and in turn change the ways we see and understand the world and want to act in it, then one has to wonder what the point of them is, and why we keep returning to them.
The difficulty in substantiating the claim that photographs can (however indirectly) change the world also seems to lie in the fact that the essential link between a photograph and action resides in the unreachable recesses of the human mind. Anecdotal, highly individual examples of how a particular photograph impacted someone, and subsequently changed the way they interacted with the world are all that can be offered, and these examples take no account for the ways photographs can act on us in ways we are not even aware of. To extrapolate these things to the level of a society, let alone a planet, and to do it in a way that will satisfy those who want photography’s power demonstrated empirically, is an impossible task.
Photography is not some god from the machine, which will resolve the world’s problems simply by the act of bringing them to light. To claim that photographs, and by association the act of photographing, will in themselves make the world a better place is utterly disingenuous, a case of letting ourselves off the hook. The real impetus is on us to respond to the things we feel when we view certain photographs and to decide to make things change. To buy into the alternative idea that pictures accomplish nothing, and to accept the implication that the things that photographs make us think and feel are meaningless and will inevitably dissolve into apathy, is infinitely more regressive. To believe that photographs can’t drive us to change the world is to believe in a futile, solitary, and entirely self-fulfilling prophecy.