IC - Week 7 - Can photography provoke change? What is the role of aesthetics?

Photography can provoke change in my opinion and aesthetics has a major role in achieving this. 

I don’t agree with Sischy regarding her criticism of Sebastiao Salgado. I looked closer at his works and seriously don’t understand why he’s been criticised for taking the photographs which are his personal representation and expression of the horrifying events he voluntarily experienced (he organised and financed most of his journeys).

Not many photographers would have a passion and sense of a mission as strong as he had to be in all those places and capture the horror of pain.

Is it really wrong to capture people who suffer in a way they are not deprived of their dignity or even depict them in a beautiful way? I believe that most of those people photographed by Salgado would prefer to see themselves depicted not as an exhausted mass of flesh and bones but as humans with souls, emotions, names and stories. They’re all individuals, not just victims.

As David Campbell observed and articulated in his essay “Salgado and the Sahel - Documentary Photography and the Imaging of Famine”, the west media are saturated with the stereotypical image of starving Africans. It is a norm to illustrate the news of the terrible events there with a heartbreaking photograph of a starving child with a big belly or distressing close up of a dying person with flies around his head. 

We tend to match all people there and their situations to one model - a wretched, anonymous being whos only attribute is pain and misery. We feel that our responsibility is to be shocked, depressed and to cry, and we are being shocked and we cry and what?…

To trigger just compassion and pity is not Salgado’s aim:

“If the person looking at my pictures only feels compassion, I will believe that I have failed completely. I want people to understand that we can have a solution.” (Salgado in Campbell p.77) 

Campbell cites as well the David Levi Strauss who says:

“Whereas those other images end at pity or compassion, Salgado’s images begin at compassion and lead from there to further recognitions. One of the first is that starvation does not obliterate human dignity. . . .Salgado did not photograph passive victims, and pity does not suffice.” (Levi Strauss in Campbell p.77) 

His photographs are poetic, sentimental and beautiful but that, so characteristic of his practice, formal approach supports well his intentions.  I respect his choice and believe that the story he told is honest.

Would the photographs of conflicts and famines he captured be seen by so many people if they were technically wrong and just ‘objective’ and shocking? Would it be better if he wasn’t there and not captured those events? Definitely not. 

Susanne Sontag wrote: 

"Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacid imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensly gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorotea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russel Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film - the precise expression on the subject's face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in preffering one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects." (Sontag p.6)

Are the most iconic images of Dorothea Lange 'beautified' too then?...

I think it is important to remember that our decisions and actions are often subordinate to some automated physiological mechanisms and it is rather common knowledge that shock and pain is hardly a trigger for constructive actions. We usually want to forget about the images, facts, experiences which are traumatic and painful. 


  • Campbell, David  “Salgado and the Sahel: Documentary Photography and the Imaging of Famine,” in Rituals of Mediation: International Politics and Social Meaning, edited by Francois Debrix and Cindy Weber (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 69-96
  • Sontag, Susan (1979)  "On Photography"  Penguin
  • Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991)