What Matters

Photographs That Can Change the World

EVERY MEDIUM HAS ITS OWN MAGIC,

CONFEDERATE DEAD AT PETERSBURG.

Photograph by Mathew Brady, 1865

and since its invention in the early nineteenth century, the particular power of photography has been its ability to freeze an instant in time and serve it up for deliberation. Pioneering photojournalist Henri CartierBresson (1908–2004) famously said that great photographs capture “the decisive moment.” When used in the service of social and political advocacy, a series of these decisive moments—a photo-essay— can catalyze real-world reforms.

Photography is older than audio, video or interactive media, but it captures decisive moments better than any of them. Since the midto late nineteenth century, photojournalists have created photoessays that have exposed unpleasant truths, advanced the public discourse and championed social causes. For real photojournalists, using photography this way is a basic instinct and an essential element in their code of conduct. In the 1860s, Mathew Brady trundled his wooden camera and tripod out to Civil War battlefields to make albumen silver prints that belied by DAVID ELLIOT COHEN
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BIBB MILL NO. 1.

Photograph by Lewis Hine, Macon, Georgia, 1909
FIVE-CENT LODGING.

Photograph by Jacob Riis, New York, 1889

the glory of war.Three decades later, Dutch immigrant Jacob Riis used camera and flash powder to expose brutal conditions in New York’s tenements, and from 1908 to 1912 Lewis Hine, an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, crisscrossed America photographing children as young as three working twelve-hour factory shifts. These photojournalistic “muckrakers” (Teddy Roosevelt’s coinage) actually got results: Riis’ tenement tableaux, initially published in Scribner’s Magazine, convinced then New York police commissioner Roosevelt to shutter the city’s brutal “police poorhouses,” and Hine’s photos of juvenile factory workers drove a nationwide expansion of child labor laws. Later, Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 shot of Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima gave war-weary America the will to keep fighting, while Eddie Adams’ famous 1968 photo of Vietnam’s police chief executing a Vietcong terrorist—a decisive moment if there ever was one—had the opposite effect, hastening the wind down of an unpopular war. Eugene Smith’s early 1970s photos of mercury pollution in Minamata, Japan, not only buoyed the victims’ lawsuit but stimulated worldwide environmental awareness. And in 2004 a series of amateur photos of US jailers humiliating Iraqi prisoners flashed across the Internet, forcing the closure of Abu Ghraib prison and a reexamination of America’s torture policy. So over the last century and a half, photo-essays have proven their ability not only to document but to actually change the course of human events. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we ask, “What are the essential photo-essays of our time, the pictures that will spark public discourse and instigate the sort of real-world reform provoked by Riis, Hine, Adams and Smith?” What Matters attempts to answer that question with eighteen important photo-essays by this generation’s preeminent photojournalists.The pictures in these essays aren’t necessarily the best photos ever made—this isn’t a greatest hits album—but they poignantly address the big issues of our time: global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, the global jihad, genocide in Darfur, the inequitable distribution of global wealth and other equally compelling challenges.

P

hoto-essays have the proven ability not only to document but also to change the course of human events.

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hotojournalism works best when it is personal and specific but still conveys a universal concept.

In an undertaking this ambitious, it is important to understand what the medium does best, and what it doesn’t do very well at all. For some very important issues, photojournalism is not the best way to tell the story. Despite our best efforts, and excellent guidance from a dozen top photo editors from major publications, we could not find a great photo-essay about the institutionalized corruption of America’s campaign finance system. It is a crucial meta-issue that affects many other issues, but it doesn’t lend itself to pictorial exposition. Then there are other big stories—such as the 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 the story. The point is, we believe that all of the stories in this book are essential, but we also realize there are other stories, just as important, that are best told in other media. Basically, photojournalism works best when it is personal and specific but still conveys a universal concept. The world’s premier conflict photographer and What Matters contributor, James Nachtwey, 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 single person.” Not surprisingly, Nachtwey demonstrates a deep understanding of the nature of photojournalism. The best photojournalism is always personal and specific. That’s why Gene Smith did not photograph pollution worldwide, but rather the devastating effects of one particular type of pollution—methyl mercury—on one very small Japanese fishing village. Nevertheless, people who saw Smith’s story in Life magazine and in his subsequent book, Minamata, easily universalized the lesson. In the same way, What Matters presents very specific pictures of, say, the ecological, cultural and economic devastation of West Africa’s Niger Delta in order to make much larger points about the pernicious effects of petroleum production and consumption worldwide. What Matters also puts great photo-essays in context by pairing photographs with insightful commentary by some of the best writers, thinkers and experts in their fields.These essays provide a much richer understanding of their topics than could ever be gained from the photos alone. But unlike most magazines, newspapers and

books, the photographs drive the story here, while the words explain their larger significance. Here’s another challenge: Brady, Riis and Hines created their groundbreaking photo-essays 100 to 150 years ago, when photography was still pretty exotic. Only a few trained technicians could operate the machinery, and photographs were still considered technological wonders. But over the last 150 years, making pictures has become progressively easier and increasingly common.With the recent proliferation of digital point-and-shoots and cell-phone cameras, a significant proportion of young people in wealthier nations carry some sort of camera with them at all times.And to a greater or lesser degree, almost everyone can operate the equipment. Add to that the distributive power of the Internet, and you get a world awash in imagery—most of it pretty vacuous.These days imagery permeates our lives. It’s practically wallpaper. And in our image-saturated

STREET EXECUTION, SAIGON. Photograph by

Eddie Adams, 1968

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f we show you these photographs, we believe that you will react with outrage… create an uproar…take action.

Right:
RAISING THE FLAG, IWO JIMA.
Photograph by Joe Rosenthal, 1945

Far right:
SATTAR JABBAR TORTURED AT ABU GHRAIB PRISON, BAGHDAD 2004.

world, it’s sometimes difficult to cut through the visual clutter and shake things up. In his introduction to Minamata, Smith lamented, “Photography is a small voice at best. Daily we are deluged with photography at its worst—until its drone of superficiality threatens to numb our sensitivity to the image.” Since Smith published his book in 1972, the problem has increased exponentially. But certain photographs are still crucial. As What Matters contributor and climate change guru Bill McKibben says in his essay, “Theoretical is the word that people in power use to dismiss anything for which pictures do not exist. It is the reason we don’t see shots of coffins coming back from Iraq; it’s the reason the only prison abuse we really know about was at Abu Ghraib. Without pictures, no uproar; not in a visual age.” So in McKibben’s words, What Matters contains images that will create uproar. And as such, many of the pictures in this book are pretty challenging. Some of them will make you cry; others will make you sick; and many of them will make you angry . . . which

is our intent. We believe that modern-day hero-photojournalists such as Sebastião Salgado, Jim Nachtwey, Ed Kashi, Tom Stoddart and Stephanie Sinclair create photo-essays that can actually grab the world’s attention; that their photographs are so transcendent, so compelling, if we show them to you, you will react with outrage . . . and create an uproar. And if you do want to take action, What Matters provides a menu of resources, web links and effective actions you can take to help right now. If, on the other hand, you look at these grim stories and think:“What’s the use? The world is irredeemably screwed up,” it is good to remember that we actually did abolish slavery and child labor in the United States; we abolished apartheid in South Africa; we defeated the Nazis; we pulled out of Vietnam; and Minamata Bay was eventually cleaned up. As the saying goes,“All great social change seems impossible until it is inevitable.” So please look at these photographs. Read the words. And then, if the spirit moves you, do something . . . even something small . . . to help repair the world.
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