Why Documentary Photography Needs to Fundamentally Change and Evolve

Lead photo by Tuncay

Years ago, photojournalists were creating images that changed the world, our opinions on life, public policies, etc. The photo was powerful; and it arguably still is. But the inherent problem with the photo’s power these days has to do with a myriad of changes in society where the photo just hasn’t been able to keep up. Just think about it: years ago photography had a big part of ending the Vietnam War and exposing lots of other major issues with society. But these days, it’s not as effective. This isn’t only in the richer, more developed societies but instead all over the world. To understand why, we need to explore photography and culture’s relationship.

Way Too Many Photos

Let’s start with the first issue that is sort of related to the rest but not really. It has to do with the fact that there is so much proliferation of photography all over the web. Photography these days is something that is done by pretty much everyone and because of this, people tend to fixate even more on their own personal stories and issues more so than those around us. The value of an image has also therefore gone down quite a bit–but the value of an exclusive, fantastic image is so much more than it has been in history due to this proliferation.

This will be talked about and discussed further in each section.

The Public’s Desensitization

Michael Robinson

Many years ago, photography used to change people’s opinions. These days, it doesn’t really partially due to the fact that the public has become desensitized by what we’re currently seeing in most places on the web or in publications. These images try to find a balance between trying to tell a story and showing people a story that they’ll want to see.

Sounds crazy right? The story that you’re trying to tell about abused women somewhere in Africa should expose to the public what it’s truly like in raw imagery.

Now let’s look at just how desensitized we are: this year’s World Press Photo winning image showed off Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş shouting after shooting Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov, at an art gallery in Ankara. The image was shot by Burhan Ozbilici and the photo itself came and went. Syria is still a major issue in the world, Russia and the US are still locked in a Cold War of sorts, and these people are still angry.

This photo, though now considered to be one of the most iconic images of all time, hasn’t done very much to sway public influence and opinions. The public is desensitized due to their being so far away from the moment and none of it immediately affecting them and their own problems.

Unfortunately, these days documentary photography and documentary photographers try and succeed in telling stories effectively but don’t always succeed in convincing people one way or another.

Want even more proof of this? Check out ViewFind. There are lots of fantastic stories uploaded there often and unfortunately, it doesn’t end up changing much. Neither, even more unfortunately, do the efforts of the Magnum Foundation. Instead, the conversations around these photos are more focused around the artistic nature and the reality. However, at the end of it all, the public goes back to looking at images of felines.

Gatekeepers and Algorithms: In Fear of Offending Their Audiences

The public’s desensitization is further guarded by what you can call gatekeepers and algorithms. Gatekeepers are those at publications and they also are the people behind algorithms determining what you see on social media platforms. An image these days can go viral on Reddit, stir up a lot of conversations, receive lots of upvotes, and still do nothing for a cause. Here’s a NSFW example.

Naveed Dadan

This is just one layer, but when you consider the added layer from those choosing what appears in a publication, then it becomes even crazier and harder to persuade the public. Publications, in an effort to appease advertisers and their readers, often try not to showcase the most graphic images from a story. The editors state that their readers don’t want to see these images. Though at the same time, one can argue that this was done years ago too. Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a Viet Cong being assassinated perhaps made people gasp with shock. The image still does to this day.

People these days are easily offended, and unfortunately that doesn’t mean that it becomes easier to sway someone’s attention because images and publications are so varied that a person can move on to the next thing and stop worrying about seeing something that offends them. People and those in power alike end up just moving on in life.

The Most Powerful Images Are Yet to Be Truly Discovered

Because of these layers of censorship, one can argue that there are most likely many very powerful images that can and should be showcased but that editors are too afraid to show people lest they lose the relationship that they’ve been cultivating with their audience for a while. In the sense that they have to ensure that photojournalists and others continue to get paid, it’s a smart tactic. However, it just means that the public continues to see images that won’t necessarily change their opinions or force action.

Konrad Lembcke

Where this is most evident is amongst the work of some of the greatest photographers still alive, and in this case we’ll focus on Susan Meiselas. The Magnum photographer has photographed and focused on war for a really long time. While the conflicts in Latin America she covered have died down quite a bit, it’s arguable that more of it had to do with the flow of resources from the United States to drug cartels.

The Web and Attention Spans

Culminating and threading together all of these ideas is one of the most paramount of human behaviors these days: short attention spans. Because there is so much information, we sit there trying to go through it all while multi-tasking. But at the same time, the NYTimes can do a fantastic photo essay on the condition of the Projects, but someone can also easily move on to the Real Estate section if they wish. That’s the choice of the person, and unfortunately with so much choice out there, it’s easy for people to forget what’s important.

So how can documentary photographers solve this issue? To be honest, I’m not quite sure that they can–the power is more in the hands of the photo editors, gatekeepers, and those who manage the algorithms to get people and their opinions changing to force meaningful action. But Documentary photographers can come together to form small collectives in order to show off the work that they do in order to instigate changes of some sort.

They just need the funding to do this.