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In a world of words, pictures still matter

  • Published at 10:16 am December 6th, 2015

A picture, the old saying goes, is worth a thousand words. Yet photography– especially the reportage variety – is said to be losing its allure. Since 2010, several photographers have voiced concerns about the future of photojournalism, citing a crisis of confidence, weak support within the media industry worldwide, technological change and visual overload.

 Don McCullin poses next to ‘A woman and child waiting for medical attention’ taken by him in Bangladesh in 1971

The American photographer Eros Hoagland divulged recently on CNN: “I don’t believe photojournalism is a very important job. My pictures and the pictures of my colleagues, they don’t really change anything. So let’s not pretend they do.” Photographers Patrick Chauvel and Don McCullin expressed a similar view during a panel discussion in 2013. McCullin believed his pictures of misery and war had made no difference. “The same old, same old,” the panel concurred: wars continue whatever they do.

History is well stocked with examples of photographers making a difference. In the mid-19th century, photography drove landscape preservation in America. In the 20th century, social housing, child labour, iniquitous working conditions, the custodial injustices of the asylum, apartheid, war and famine were all issues that photographers successfully confronted. Photography is a small voice, W Eugene Smith once wrote, but an important one.

King Leopold’s murderous regime in Congo came to a close when lantern slides of butchered rubber workers were shown. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might not have been drawn up in Eleanor Roosevelt’s flat in Washington DC were it not for the impact of images of the Holocaust. Scant relief would have come to the malnourished of Biafra were it not for the impact of photographs of which McCullin’s are some of the best remembered.

The knowledge that photographers can make a difference, in 2015 as much as in 1951, is the momentum behind their work. In 1999 CNN’s Christiane Amanpour wrote with conviction of her time in Bosnia: “I believe the efforts by journalists and photographers to tell the objective facts made a difference. Nato finally intervened and ended that war in 1995.”

James Nachtwey, another veteran of reporting on Bosnia, was packing recently for a trip to document the refugee crisis on Lesbos and in Croatia. “What allows me to overcome the emotional obstacles inherent in my work,” he told me, “is the belief that when people are confronted with images that evoke compassion, they will continue to respond, no matter how exhausted, angry or frustrated they may be.” David Cameron’s overnight change of policy on Britain accepting Syrian refugees was driven, as we now know, by photography.

It is naive to think of photography as effectual in every case, or as a panacea for the ills of the world. It has many shortcomings and the photojournalist’s job has never been easy. Larry Burrows, who died covering the Vietnam war, wrote of his angst: “The story is hard to tell in pictures. The people are simple and hard-working and bear pain in silence.”

Today frustrations are different: a PR-controlled world, lack of access, lack of money, concerns over digital photography, and the increased risks of kidnapping or worse. “There’s a price tag that goes along with what we do,” acknowledges the photographer João Silva, who lost both his legs to a landmine in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Danger in the field, however, is compounded by a publishing crisis at home.

Photography has a special problem in an editorial world dominated by words. There is so much talent out there, and yet the bulk of British newspaper photographs are illustrative, predictable and unprogressive – often adding little to what’s in the text. A quick review of recent broadsheets showed pictures of sweets and a sugary drink to illustrate an article on sugary drinks; the pope kissing babies; the solitary placard repeating the rallying cry of “Don’t bomb Syria” or “End austerity now”.

Photography is an evolving visual language. In reportage it delivers comedy and satire as well as tragedy. Why are some photographs of quiet scenes of everyday life so memorable? Yet at least three of our national newspapers have, reportedly, no staff photographers at all.

Last week the documentary photographer and film director Anton Corbijn was said to be leaving professional photography. The Economist, in a gloomy piece on Corbijn’s Berlin retrospective, declared: “Photography as a slow analogue art form is dead.” In fact, film-based photography has been enjoying a recent revival with new manufacturers coming on to the market.

What’s changed over the years is functionality and availability. Today, almost everyone has a way of taking pictures. That’s not the issue. Amateurs engaging with photography should be welcomed, not feared. The crisis that has faced photography has often been blamed on “the other” – the market, amateurs, journalists with iPhones – never on its own lack of purpose or imagination.

But photography has been embraced, for example in the recently relaunched New York Times magazine. Innovation and investment in quality may yet win out: at least you’ll find no snapshots of sugary drinks. New online and print media such as Vice – aimed at a younger audience – have actually taken advantage of stolid conservatism in the mainstream press to walk the other way and carve their own niche.

Whatever we do, let’s at least cut out what TV people call “wallpaper” – the NHS logo, the stethoscope, the ATM machine to illustrate a cash crisis. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words. But photography is an important art. As Eleanor Roosevelt once proposed: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”