How Photography Changed the World

On February 1, The Big Picture hosted legendary photojournalists Ed Kashi of VII Agency and James Estrin, co-founder and co-editor of the New York Times photography blog Lens for a conversation about how photography impacts policy.

They brought along with them a team of rockstar documentary photographers and photojournalists – Griselda San Martin, Salwan Georges, and Kara Frame – who are part of a cohort of 14 photographers from a three-year workshop focused on visual storytelling and documentary photography at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s Advanced Mentored Studies (AMS) Program. Led by Kashi and Estrin, the workshop’s goal is to tell stories with great power, authorship and relevance to many of the global issues of today.

San Martin presented her work on the impact of U.S. immigration policy on New York’s immigrant community from Puebla, Mexico. Georges discussed his journey as a refugee fleeing Iraq and eventually settling in Detroit, Michigan. Frame shared a trailer of her documentary film on the story of a U.S. veteran who killed his wife after returning home from the war in Afghanistan.  Other photographers in the cohort explored stories of community and identity, climate change, domestic abuse, environmental degradation, and political instability.

(You can watch The Big Picture’s conversation with Estrin, Kashi, and the photographers in their program here.)

International Affairs in the Digital World

This was the first ever event of The Big Picture forum – and for good reason: photography has had an indisputable transformational impact on our world.

The rise of smart phones, the development of digital camera technology, and the growth of the internet have increased the quantity, frequency, production, and transmission of images around the world.

This new era of photography is rapid, never-ending, and all-consuming, ushering in a new period of global engagement on issues of conflict, identity politics, human rights, and so many other challenges facing the world today.

As I log on to Instagram today, February 9, to search for “#rohingya,” I find over 170,000 images related to the massive refugee crisis and persecution of this minority community from northern Rakhine province in Myanmar. The top entry is an image of ten Rohingya men awaiting execution. I then switch to BBC and find these men in another story, this time about discovering the mass grave where they were dumped. BBC shares an image of their dead bodies.

This rapid, seemingly endless, and graphic form of reportage can be extremely valuable for many different stakeholders: diplomats, journalists, academics, intelligence agencies, and human rights advocates. It can accelerate a negotiation that may have slowed down. It can humanize a conflict that the public has become desensitized to.

At the same time, the bombardment of visual imagery can also mislead or be taken out of context if we fail to become visually literate. The study and application of visual literacy has become critical for many disciplines in today’s digital world.

What is Visual Literacy?

“The basic definition of visual literacy is the ability to read, write and create visual images. It is a concept that relates to art and design but it also has much wider applications. Visual literacy is about language, communication and interaction. Visual media is a linguistic tool with which we communicate, exchange ideas and navigate our highly visual digital world.”

While visual literacy isn’t something traditionally taught in the international affairs curriculum, it does appear to be increasingly relevant and critical to the work that we do – especially if photojournalists are able to access conflict zones and populations that diplomats, aid workers, or military cannot.

What is Impact?

The conversation with Kashi, Estrin, and the other photographers is the beginning of a larger effort to introduce visual literacy into the minds of policymakers and for anyone who has the ability to influence policy.

When I met Estrin several weeks back, I asked him for some context on photographers seeking social and policy impact in their work. Was it always this way? And more importantly, how could achieving impact be measured?

Estrin emphasized that impact-oriented photography tells a story, but it also serves as a call to action.

We discussed Lewis Hine, an American sociologist and photographer, whose images of American children working in the early 1900s sought to change child labor laws.

Estrin praised the work of photographer Donna Ferrato, who began documenting sexual adventurers and ended up photographing domestic violence and actively campaigning to help women leave abusive relationships.

Impact is hard to measure. Sometimes the production and display of the image  itself is the impact, even if it is viewed by a group of people, small or large, or an individual.

Sometimes the ability of a photograph to generate buzz and publicity is measurable impact because it has the power to start a national conversation. Think of the heart-wrenching image of three-year old Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose drowned body washed up on the short of a Turkish beach on September 2, 2015.

It is an image that many of us wished we never saw, but now that we have, it is unforgettable and undeniable.

The work of the AMS cohort is on display in the “15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice” exhibit at the Mason Library at Johns Hopkins SAIS from February 1 – March 15. 

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