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Introduction

Introduction

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Published by Viennalooi

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Published by: Viennalooi on Mar 23, 2010
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03/22/2010

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INTRODUCTIONWHAT MATTERS
7
EVERY MEDIUM HAS ITS OWN MAGIC,
and since itsinvention in the early nineteenth century,theparticular power of photography has been its abilityto freeze an instant in time and serve it up for delib-eration.Pioneering photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) famously said that greatphotographs capture “the decisive moment.”Whenused in the service of social and political advocacy,aseries of these decisive moments—a photo-essay— can catalyze real-world reforms.
Photography is older than audio,video or interactive media,but itcaptures decisivemoments better than any of them.Since the mid-to late nineteenth century,photojournalists have created photo-essays that have exposed unpleasant truths,advanced the public dis-course and championed social causes.For real photojournalists,using photography this way is a basicinstinct and an essential element in their code of conduct.In the1860s,Mathew Brady trundled his wooden camera and tripod outto Civil War battlefields to make albumen silver prints that belied
CONFEDERATEDEAD ATPETERSBURG.
Photograph byMathewBrady,1865
What Matters
Photographs ThatCan Change the World
by
DAVID ELLIOTCOHEN
 
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INTRODUCTIONWHAT MATTERS
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the glory of war.Three decades later,Dutch immigrant Jacob Riisused camera and flash powder to expose brutal conditions in New York’s tenements,and from 1908 to 1912 Lewis Hine,an investiga-tive photographer for the National Child Labor Committee,criss-crossed America photographing children as young as three workingtwelve-hour factory shifts.These photojournalistic “muckrakers”(Teddy Roosevelt’scoinage) actually got results:Riis’tenement tableaux,initially pub-lished in
Scribner’s Magazine 
,convinced then New York police com-missioner Roosevelt to shutter the city’s brutal “policepoorhouses,and Hine’s photos of juvenile factory workers drove anationwide expansion of child labor laws.Later,Joe Rosenthal’s1945 shot of Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima gave war-wearyAmerica the will to keep fighting,while Eddie Adams’famous1968 photo ofVietnam’spolice chief executing a Vietcongterrorist—a decisive moment if there ever was one—had theopposite effect,hastening the wind down of an unpopular war.Eugene Smith’s early 1970s photos of mercury pollution inMinamata,Japan,not only buoyed the victims’lawsuit but stimu-lated worldwide environmental awareness.And in 2004 a series of amateur photos ofUS jailers humiliating Iraqi prisoners flashedacross the Internet,forcing the closureof Abu Ghraib prison and areexamination of America’s torture policy.So over the last century and a half,photo-essays have proventheir ability not only to document but to actually change thecourse of human events.If that’s the case,shouldn’t we ask,“Whatare the essential photo-essays of 
our 
time,the pictures that will sparkpublic discourse and instigate the sort of real-world reform pro-voked byRiis,Hine,Adams and Smith?”
What Matters
attempts to answer that question with eighteenimportant photo-essays by this generation’s preeminent photojour-nalists.The pictures in these essays aren’t necessarily the best photosever made—this isn’tagreatest hits album—but they poignantlyaddress the big issues of our time:global warming,environmentaldegradation,AIDS,the global jihad,genocide in Darfur,theinequitable distribution of global wealth and other equally com-pelling challenges.
BIBB MILL NO.1.
Photograph byLewis Hine,Macon, Georgia, 1909
FIVE-CENT LODGING.
Photograph by Jacob Riis,New York, 1889
P
hoto-essayshave the provenability not onlyto documentbut also to changethe course of human events.
 
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INTRODUCTIONWHAT MATTERS
11
books,the photographs drivethe story here,while the wordsexplain their larger significance.Here’sanother challenge:Brady,Riis and Hines created their groundbreaking photo-essays 100 to 150 years ago,when photog-raphywas still pretty exotic.Only a few trained technicians couldoperate the machinery,and photographs were still consideredtechnological wonders.But over the last 150 years,making pictures has becomeprogressively easier and increasingly common.With the recent pro-liferation of digital point-and-shoots and cell-phone cameras,asignificant proportion of young people in wealthier nations carrysome sortof camera with them at all times.And to a greater or lesser degree,almost everyone can operate the equipment.Add to that thedistributive power of the Internet,and you get a world awash inimagery—most of it pretty vacuous.These days imagery permeatesour lives.It’s practically wallpaper.And in our image-saturated
p
hotojournalismworks best whenit is personal andspecific but stillconveys a universalconcept.
STREET EXECUTION,SAIGON.
Photograph byEddie Adams,1968
In an undertaking this ambitious,it is important to understandwhat the medium does best,and what it doesn’t do very well atall.For some very important issues,photojournalism is not the bestway to tell the story.Despite our best efforts,and excellent guid-ance from a dozen top photo editors from major publications,wecould not find a great photo-essay about the institutionalizedcorruption of America’s campaign finance system.It is a crucialmeta-issue that affects many other issues,but it doesn’t lend itself to pictorial exposition.Then there are other big stories—such asthe so-called digital divide between information “haves”and“have-nots”—about which we felt sure we’d find great pictures.But we couldn’t identify ten or twelve strong images to convey thestory.The point is,we believe that all of the stories in this bookare essential,but we also realize there are other stories,just asimportant,that arebest told in other media.Basically,photojournalism works best when it is personal andspecific but still conveys a universal concept.The world’s premier conflict photographer and
What Matters
contributor,JamesNachtwey,puts it this way,“I do not want to show war in general,nor history with a capital H,but rather the tragedy of a singleperson.Not surprisingly,Nachtwey demonstrates a deep under-standing of the natureof photojournalism.The best photojournal-ism is always personal and specific.That’s why Gene Smith did notphotograph pollution worldwide,but rather the devastating effectsof one particular type of pollution—methyl mercury—on one verysmall Japanese fishing village.Nevertheless,people who saw Smith’sstory in
Life 
magazine and in his subsequent book,
Minamata
,easilyuniversalized the lesson.In the same way,
What Matters
presentsveryspecific pictures of,say,the ecological,cultural and economicdevastation of West Africa’s Niger Delta in order to make muchlarger points about the pernicious effects of petroleum productionand consumption worldwide.
What Matters
also puts great photo-essays in context by pairingphotographs with insightful commentary by some of the best writ-ers,thinkers and experts in their fields.These essays provide a muchricher understanding of their topics than could ever be gained fromthe photos alone.But unlike most magazines,newspapers and

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