Saturday, September 12, 2015


Lewis Bush writes this blog over at Disphotic. To be honest, it drifts in and out of my envelope of interest, but these days he's tending to write things I find interesting. He's definitely worth putting on your reading list. You may find him a worthwhile daily read.

Right now I want to address this recent essay from Lewis. I think he's basically wrong, but thoughtfully so. He makes the distinction between changing people, and changing the world. He says that photographs don't change the world, they change people, who then change the world.

But this is, I think, what people always mean when they say that photographs can change the world. Nobody is claiming that photographs are meteors, physically carving changes on the planet. It's like saying 'guns don't kill people, it's the bullets!' Facile but a bit silly.

I think he radically underestimates the changes a photograph works on a person. A photograph isn't the real thing it depicts, but it's an excellent proxy for a memory of the thing. When we see a photograph of the dead child, the burning child, the deformed child, it is as if we remember that child ourselves despite never seeing her. Photographs of things we did experience we find standing in for direct memories of the thing (see Sally Mann's remarks).

While it is true that a single photograph never, or almost never, causes a radical change in a person's life, causes the person to take up or cast down the banner of some cause, it is true that a single photograph, or a small group, can radically change our perception of events, of a thing, of a place. We now almost remember it. The change we experience is small, but with its domain, extremely radical, profound. Small but intense, perhaps, is a reasonable description. This is the unique power of the photograph.

All the writing and talking in the world cannot create the experience of a memory, or an almost memory. Well, it can, but you need to be quite subtle about it, and it takes a lot of effort. A photograph does it in an instant.

When the person, when society, is balanced on the cusp of change, a photograph can tip the balance in a moment, and great changes can be wrought.

It's only happened, truly, a modest handful of times. It's not as if every photograph changes the world, almost none of them ever have. But it is a unique power that photographs have. They crystallize a super-saturated solution of ideas like nothing else can.


  1. Good point. In reference to the photo of Aylan, I would suggest the photograph also becomes the symbol for all the children who die trying to leave Syria, Phan Thị Kim Phú a symbol for all the children harmed in the Vietnam war. The photograph changes the perception to make a catastrophe personal and understandable.

    1. Yup! A word that seems to fit is "reify".. A photo makes a thing "real" in our minds, in a sense that is different from the way words do. And it does it whether it's a dead child in a war zone, or simply your friend's cat.

      Lewis' point is that this doesn't always, indeed rarely, leads to action. But most things don't, really. We receive stimuli constantly, and we mainly live our lives according to rote, to patterns long established. The homeless man asks for change, and we don't alter our lives one whit. The legless veteran tells us of the horror of war, and we do not change our vote.

      Photographs are not wonderful because they are constantly fomenting change. They are wonderful because they are nearly as effective as reality is at fomenting change.