I've seen the second article this week from a Serious Writer Person which asserts that photographs have little power to change the course of history, which is rocking me back a little. Did I miss a memo, or are photos now simultaneously impotent and incredibly powerful? Who knows. Allow me to indulge myself a little and think through a theory of change, of history in the shaping.
As a first approximation, it certainly seems as though everything which happens, happens as the
inevitable result of the things that came before. To shape events today, you must alter them
yesterday. The events of yesterday, though, were the inevitable result of the events that preceded
them. This yields, by induction, a theory of history as impervious to change, as a sequence of
inevitable events, one after the other, a clockwork none can alter.
This is, at least, an impractical theory. If true, who cares? Nothing matters. Let us, accordingly,
think about some variations on the theme.
Each social entity, perhaps a single person, a group of revolutionaries, or society as a generalized
whole, acts, lets us suppose, at any given moment within a fairly narrow scope of options determined
by the context. Context includes the state of the real world, and the emotional stance of the
social entity. We act largely by selecting the easiest (psychically easiest) action, or at least an
Note that this does not mean that we do not do hard things. Sometimes the psychically easiest course is very hard indeed. Imagine you've told all your friends you're definitely not going to chicken out the first time
you go skydiving. To leap out the terrifying doorway into the air is by no means easy, but it might well be
easier than facing your friends tomorrow having punked-out.
A revolutionary group might switch abruptly from sullen insolence to violent revolution, and that seems
a long single step taken in a moment. In reality, though, perhaps it is a very small step, psychically.
The revolutionaries have been psyching themselves up, they've been painting themselves into a corner
as their oppressors harass them into the same corner, and then one morning, at 6:48am give or take
a few seconds, violence erupts not because it is hard, or a large step, but because it is the easiest
and shortest step to take, given the context.
This suggests that even a single photograph, contributing to the emotional state of some social unit,
might tilt the context slightly, might open the path to a new course of action.
The course has to be pretty clear. This is well established by people who study these things, as well
as being pretty obvious when I state it. The stage must be set, the emotional state of the social
unit must be nearby, the conditions of the real world must be such as to enable action. The
photograph arrives, it is seen, the emotional state takes on a new heightened and altered state, and the result
is that the psychically easiest course is the action which results. The photograph in some sense caused the action.
Marketing, propaganda, is all about gently nudging the emotional state of the social unit. Often it's
not even directed toward a specific action, but if the state of the world is right, the path will
be cleared at some moment, and then the emotional state collapses like a quantum entanglement into
action, into change. It might seem that suddenly a nation shifts and pelts, incomprehensibly, down a mad path. In reality forces have been slowly shaping the mood of the people, and other forces have been clearing the path.
Photographs and other media have a role here, they set the emotional stage, they show us the world
and tell us its meaning. The inspire emotion, they make us angry, or inspire us, or delight us, they
show us what ought to be, what is, and sometimes the show us what we might do.
Media, by shaping our ideas of the world, does not directly inspire change. Rather, it shapes us,
it shapes our ideas of the psychic cost of this action versus that one. Media plays the role of
all those friends to whom we bragged, all those friends who will relentlessly mock us if we fail to
jump. Media does not pack our chute, it does not fly the plane, it does not open the door.
Our actions, and the actions of others, those directly shape the real world, they get us in the air
standing in front of the open doorway, thinking about our friends. Then, we act, and that shapes the world
It is, of course, not a tidy little loop of "media -> emotion -> (+ world) -> action -> new world" and back
around to media again. It's a messy mesh of bullshit with arrows going all over the place all
Still, I think it's a mechanic.
It answers the question of why the photograph of Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach didn't seem to have any effect. There was no easy course that could be activated by this photo, no matter how powerful the emotional impact.
The photo of Emmett Till did activate a path forward, because there was a path forward. There were specific
actions that could be taken, and which were taken, which were to a meaningful degree efficacious. There was a channel down which the emotional impact could flow, and flow it did.