Can documentary photography ever change a political situation?

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8 December
15:27
December
2016

Yes. Absolutely. If you look at the history of photojournalism, Roger Fenton, who documented the Crimean war, was one of the first photographers to bring home pictures of casualties but, as with the pictures of the American Civil War where you see fields of dead bodies, the time lapse between when those pictures were taken and when people would actually see them was huge. Plus, there wasn't a mass media, so the people seeing those pictures would still be elites.

A scene from the Crimean war, captured  by Roger Fenton

The Second World War was the birth of mass media, but photography still tended to glorify war, making it very exciting, patriotic, verging on propaganda. At the end of the Second World War, the photographs of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima, were the first time the public had seen that kind of imagery, but still there was very little questioning of war itself.

Compare and contrast: LIFE magazine covers from the Second World War (above) and the Vietnam War (below)

The big turning point was Vietnam. Photographers were sending home pictures that people weren't used to seeing; civilians being injured. napalmed children, executions, dead American soldiers. Those images brought people to question why are we fighting on the other side of the world for this. It wasn't the wars that had changed but the way the media was covering it.

One of the main reasons the US government lost public support over Vietnam was directly from photography. That’s why they started embedding and controlling war photographers. Now you hardly ever see a picture of an injured American soldier. Censorship is still really strict in that area.

What people react to now though is the human element within the horror, which is why that picture of Alan Kurdi lying on the beach became this sensation. It was strange for people like me, because covering those places, we would see dead bodies all the time, but I think with that boy there was something about the way that he was dressed, the way you couldn't see his face, to a lot of people he looked like a western child, like somebody that could be their kid, and people connected with that. You can show headless bodies, decimated children, and people don’t really react to it anymore. They react to something that brings the human element back.

"No-one’s asking them about Afghanistan or Iraq, and while politicians aren’t going to be swayed by images they will be swayed by public opinion, and I think public opinion can be swayed by photographs"

I don't think a single photograph is ever going to make a politician change their own beliefs. I’ve had two exhibitions in the Houses of Parliament. One exhibition, of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, was in the members area, just as they were waiting to vote on the bombing of Syria.

Now, I don't think any politician is going to look at my photographs and say, ‘I didn't realise. War is shit. My mistake’. They’re obviously all aware of that. but by keeping pressure on them, keep reminding them, you can maybe sway them a very tiny bit.

"On a more personal level, photographs can completely change things"

However, I think change only really comes when public opinion is changed. But I speak to MPs, and one of the things they say is that the public don't really bring up war anymore, particularly, leading up to elections. No-one’s asking them about Afghanistan or Iraq, and while politicians aren’t going to be swayed by images they will be swayed by public opinion, and I think public opinion can be swayed by photographs.

On a more personal level, photographs can completely change things. I’ve been documenting this family in Lebanon for three years. The mother, Kholoud, was paralysed by a sniper’s bullet. They were living in a makeshift tent, couldn't get medical treatment. I showed their pictures at a talk in San Francisco and some people at the talk raised a quarter of million dollars in crowdfunding to help that family.

I was out there last month and we were able to put that family in a new flat, and get Kholoud the medical treatment she needed. That’s the power of photography. A photograph taken in Lebanon, shown in San Francisco, changes somebody’s life. So I do believe photography can make a difference. 

Giles Duley visits Syrian refugees in Lebanon for Channel 4's 'Unreported World' 

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