The Camera as an Aid to Social Change – Four Photos That Changed The World

Speaking on the power of photography, Gordon Parks, who often used his photography to highlight the reality of life for African-American communities living in 20th century America, described photography as his means to “transcend the limitations of my own experience by sharing, as deeply as possible, the problems of those I photograph.” Parks saw this as his “weapon” and while other may use their weapon to inflict hurt and pain upon those propagating injustice, he saw his photography as a way of exposing “the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.”

The following series of photos, while famous in their own right, have to come to represent Park’s belief that photography has the ability to transcend the reality of individual experiences and in doing so, shine a light on the injustice and suffering of others. While each is a mere snapshot in time, captured in the blink of an eye, they inspired in some part, a feeling of anger and disgust and a demand for the injustice captured in each photo to end. For others, it inspired a moment of reflection and introspection as they were reminded of how the reality of life for others in the world, did not always resemble their own.

The Face of AIDS

Photographer Therese Fare was spending some time at Pater Noster House, a hospice for people suffering with AIDS related illnesses, when she captured the following photo of David Kirkby. An AIDS activist, he died on the 5th May 1990 surrounded by his family. The photo taken by Fare of his final moments was later published in LIFE magazine captioned “the picture that changed the face of AIDS”.

The Face of AIDS Therese Frare 1990

The AIDS epidemic that gripped the United States in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was met with fear and suspicion from the wider population, especially given the disease’s incidence rate among homosexuals, drug users and minority communities. Such was the culture of fear that developed around AIDS, many victims were ostracised or refused treatment for fear of infecting others. By the end of 1980’s over 20,000 people had died as a result of AIDS in the US alone.

The potency of the image lies in how Kirkby’s father holds his face close to his own. Given the culture of fear and avoidance that existed around AIDS sufferers, with many avoiding any contact with patients for fear of infection, the image shows that those who died from the disease were people’s sons and daughters. Behind the culture of fear and media hysteria, these were ordinary people losing those who they loved. 

While Fare’s photo of a dying Kirkby offered a very humanistic depiction of the disease, with many comparing Kirkby to a dying Jesus comforted by Mary, its potential power as a social catalyst was not fully realised until the 1992 Benneton ad campaign that featured the photo. The campaign generated national debate on the issue of how AIDS was being treated in America with the company forced to defend its use of the photo as many saw it as a cynical marketing ploy. 

In 2012, Fare told Life that David’s father Bill Kirby expressed the family’s feelings on the use of the picture by United Colours of Benetton when he told her “Benetton didn’t use us, or exploit us. We used them. Because of them, your photo was seen all over the world, and that’s exactly what David wanted.”

The 1990’s saw high profile celebrities such as basketball star Magic Johnson and musician Freddie Mercury come out as AIDS sufferers with the US administration introducing policies and campaigns aimed at better treating the disease. While AIDS still affects thousands around the world, the Kirkby photo and subsequent Benetton ad could be seen to represent a sea change moment in how the disease was discussed and viewed by the public, and could be responsible for saving thousands of lives thanks to better treatment and supports.

Kent State Shootings

American involvement in South East Asia had steadily increased since the end of World War Two, often cited as a means to protect the region from the communist influence of China and to a lesser extent, Russia.

Kent State Shootings John Paul Filo 1970

Unlike with The Second World War, American involvement in the region was not universally supported by the American public. The 1960’s youth culture, particularly focused in university campuses, were vocally opposed to the American involvement in the region and would frequently organise protest and demonstrations across the country condemning the Nixon regime for its continued escalation of the war.

On April 30th, 1970, President Nixon announced that 2,000 troops would be sent to neutral Cambodia in an effort to stem North Vietnamese activity in the region. The decision was met with hostility and indignation from opponents of the war who felt it represented an abuse of power on the part of the presidency.

Some four days later at Kent State University Ohio, a student demonstration was organised to protest the decision but ultimately ended with four students dying as National Guard troops opened fire on the crowd.

John Filo, a student and part-time news photographer, captured the moment student Mary Ann Vecchio cries out over a fatally wounded Jeffrey Miller. Filo’s photograph was printed on the front page of the New York Times and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It has since become the visual symbol of a hopeful nation’s lost youth but at the time served as a catalyst for an escalation in the anti-war movement.

The incident, and photo itself, inspired walk out protests across university campuses with some 4 million students taking part. Just five days after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., against the war and the killing of unarmed student protesters. The next three years would see a gradual de-escalation of American involvement in the region before a total removal of troops in 1973.

The incident, and photo itself, can be seen as a lightening rod moment in the fight for a constitutional change to voting laws. Prior to 1971, the voting age was 21 which was often a bone of contention given that the military draft for the war was of men between the ages of 18 and 21. The Kent State Shootings galvanised student protest over the voting age and by 1971, the twenty-sixth amendment to the US constitution was passed lowering the voting age to 18 which gave a bigger political voice and influence to students across the country. 

While the Kent State photo may not have humanised and highlighted a hidden injustice, it did serve as a rallying call for a generation who felt there was a need to fight back against the unchecked power of the presidency, while vocalising the sentiment and disregard they had for the role its country had in the world. One which they felt they had no say in.

Alan Kurdi

While war and conflict can often seem like far off and inconsequential happenings to those far removed from its effects, the migrant crisis in Europe brought on by the Syrian Civil war was given an all too human, and innocent, face by the photo of Alan Kurdi.

Alan Kurdi Syrian Refugee Nilufer Demir 2015

The Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011, has led to the displacement of over 5 million Syrians with many seeking refuge in Europe as they attempt to flee the death and destruction the civil war has inflicted on their country.

On the 2nd of September, 2015, Alan Kurdi and his family attempted to reach the Greek island of Kos by travelling in a small rubber inflatable boat. Five minutes after entering the sea at Bodrum in Turkey, the boat capsized and in the early hours of the morning, his body washed up on the shore.

The iconic photo was taken by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir and quickly went viral. The photo led an international outcry as leaders across the world expressed their shock and sadness upon seeing the photo. For many of those living in countries where these refugees were attempting to reach, such as Canada to where the Kurdi family were hoping to travel, the photo was a sobering reminder of the responsibility countries had to families like the Kurdi’s.

The photo placed tremendous pressure on European governments to reassess their policy towards refugees, particularly those fleeing the war, and in the months preceding the photo’s publication, thousands of Syrian asylum seekers were welcomed into countries such as Germany. The photo also provoked an outpowering of charity from individuals with donations increase 15 fold in the wake of the photos publication.

Some criticised the use of the photo feeling it was an act of “voyeurism”, demeaning to the child and his family. Thousands of images of families fleeing the conflict proliferated the media at the time but the shocking nature of the Kurdi photo was enough for people across Europe to make their voices heard by their elected representatives, inspiring in them a sense of duty and to a certain extent, guilt for not doing more sooner.

While the Syrian Civil War continues to displace thousands of Syrian’s, the photo of Alan Kurdi reminded the citizens of Europe of the responsibility their governments have in protecting people displaced by conflict. They are not simply an inconvenient problem that can be ignored and the Kurdi photo was a sobering reminder of this.

The Hand of Mrs. Wilhelm Röntgen

While the previous three examples have shown the power to create a change in attitude or attention to an issue affecting people in those times, such has been the impact of the following photo on society, its significance as a photo is perhaps forgotten.

The Hand of Mrs. Wilhelm Rontgen Wilhem Conrad Rontgen 1895

Taken in 1895, the photo features the hand of Anna Bertha Rontgen and while that may not sound particularly significant, the photo represents a pioneering medical breakthrough that can be argued, has saved the lives of millions of people since its invention.

While the photo is of Ms. Rontgen’s hand, it is no ordinary photo as it shows us the bones of her fingers as opposed to the skin of the exterior. Her husband, Wilhelm, had been experimenting for weeks with electromagnetic energy and in his research, he noticed that he could produce shadowy images of the inside of objects using the energy. Using what he called x-rays, he also able to produce an image of the inside of his wife’s hands which proved to be an incredible medical breakthrough.

For his discovery, Rontgen won the Nobel Prize for Physics and his invention went on to revolutionaries the diagnosis of internal injuries and disease. It may be difficult to qualify just how important this discovery was given the common usage of x-rays across the medical world today, but it can be argued that Rontgen’s photo has saved the lives of millions who without the technology, would have disease and illness such as cancer and tumours go undiagnosed before ultimately costing them their death.

The photo may not have ignited society like the previous three, but its long lasting impact on the world cannot be understated.      

The pervasiveness and ubiquitousness of photographs has accelerated in the 21st century to the point where the simple visual image has almost been rendered invisible. In a world dominated by visual stimuli and imagery, the complexity and power of photographs is often lost The power of photography lies in its visceral and immediate nature. Words can be chosen carefully, curated so as to portray individuals or events in a particular light, or simply used to tell falsehoods and lies. In photography, there is no escaping the immediate truth it represents.

As a result, photography has been used as a means to represent those who would normally find their voice drowned out, to open the doors and highlight the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths of the world we live in, and to advocate for change so as to create a more free and equal society. While some may feel the power of imagery has diminished, it retains for the most part its power to move us, inspiring in us a desire and want for a better world for all who call it home.

The photos featured in this article were taking from TIME magazine’s collection of ‘The 100 Most Influential Photos’. The entire series plus the stories behind them can be viewed HERE.








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s