Just because you have a camera doesn’t mean you are a photographer. With the advent of smartphones, most people tend to believe the widely-used English language dictum: A picture is worth a thousand words. In other terms, they tend to believes photographs simply capture what could otherwise be described by a considerable number of words. But do we really think that’s all photography is?
Another famous statement you may have heard comes from Karl Lagerfeld, who explained: “Photographs capture a moment that is gone forever and impossible to reproduce.” Again, the idea here is that photographs are mechanical ways of capturing a moment or event. Can we not think of photographs of something? A way to not represent not only reality, but maybe even our ideas about reality? Maybe even shape how we view reality?
Homo sapiens have used images since the dawn of civilisation to represent and comprehend the world around them. Whether in the cave paintings at the famous Chauvet Cave in France or the Cave of the Castle in Spain, human beings have always created images for a wide range of reasons. Even in modern times, the use of photographs in the media, books and journals do not just describe the world, but tell a story about the world.
For example, there is the famous photograph of Earth taken by Apollo 11 in 1969. The image is not just of Earth though; it tells the story of humankind and scientific innovation. Similarly, the Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother” is not just a close-up of a woman, but tells the tale of how people suffered during the Great Depression in the United States.
Then there is the famous photograph from our part of the world of a child leading a procession during the mass revolt of 1969, telling the story of not only a protest but a young nation coming into its own.
As a research tool
In more recent decades, photography has become a more important research methodology: not only to document what is happening but to tell the stories of what is happening. In this sense, photographs do not simply replace textual data, but act as a form of visual data that allow researchers to investigate a deeper understanding of social dynamics. One example is photovoice, a participatory method that asks participants to take their own pictures to identify and represent different issues in their own communities. Then there is visual ethnography, a sub-discipline of anthropology that examines how images and media depict and represent culture.
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A group of men gesture as they work out the solution to a problem Syed Tasfiq Mahmood
Of course, photographs cannot answer every research question; visual documentation is only helpful for specific types of questions. But it is crucial to remember photographs can capture events that could otherwise not be captured by words. As Roland Barthes explained: “Photography mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially”.
Photographs are not simply a reflection of reality, but construct how we experience reality.
There are also ethical points we should consider when taking photographs, particularly in social research. Candid photographs tend to be better in social research than photographs that are staged, because there is no hidden motive.
Snapshots of climate change
In today’s world, everyone has a camera on their phone: no one has to be a professional photographer while covering an event. For the most part, they just point and click their cameras. But how do we take photographs more difficult topics, issues such as climate change that is occurring over a time space greater than the average human life.
It is quite difficult for any photographer to capture the effects of climate change. Global warming is responsible for the changes in climatic pattern, thus ice glacier melts slowly all around the year with fluctuations.
If the question is, how do I photograph climate change? Then, one answer is to take photograph of the small scale effects of individual stories of people adapting, changing their livelihoods, to survive in new climatic patterns; stories that symbolize larger changes happening on the planet. Yet visualizing climate change remains a challenging process to photograph, and will require photographers to think about their images more carefully.
For instance, world renowned adapt expert Dr. Saleemul Huq often says that describing the climate change problem is like defining a glass half filled with water. Our photographs can show the portion of the glass that is empty, or the portion that filled, or both. Each tells a different story, and of course those stories have implications. Do our images of climate change in Bangladesh show a country that is vulnerable or a country that is resilient? As I’ve discussed above, photographs can reveal aspects of the world that can’t be easily described by words.
“With great power, comes great responsibility,” goes the quote from Spiderman. Photographers, I believe, have that power, and play an important role shaping how we think about climate change.
Syed Tasfiq Mahmood is a programme assistant and project manager at ICCCAD, IUB. He is a photographer with a special interest in street photography and photo-documentary.