Saturday, 9 May 2009

Shock and awe

A street child slept under a bridge to take shelter from the rain in Manila - Image by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

There is a believe, within certain sections of the photojournalist community, that the right sort of photograph can change public perceptions about wars, famine and poverty. That's probably true, but i personally think that it's very rare for an image to have as profound an affect as to change the way people think. Sadly, we are becoming more and more immune to images of suffering. Far to often we hear someone state that a new story is a shocking story. Is it? Is it really shock or is it just a soundbite to get our attention? A truly shocking event is something like 9/11 where even the media were in a state of shock. Real shock!

While looking through the photography on the Wall Street Journal photoblog, i came across the picture of a young boy, no older than eight or nine, sleeping under the feet of passers by on a busy Manila street. The photograph is both tragic and heartbreaking. The image probably has more intensity because the boy is sleeping and vunerable. This small area is his bedroom with only a piece of cardboard for a bed. What is he dreaming of? It's a great photo and yet i hate it. I hate what it tells me - some poor kid actually lives like this in the 21st century. What i hate even more is the fact that the photograph probably won't change a damn thing. Go to that bridge and the boy may still be sleeping under it. The photograph just becomes a record of child poverty in the Philippines but it changes nothing regarding solving the problem itself.

A radio show recently commented that anger is a totally negative emotion - nobody benefits from it. I disagree. The right image or TV footage can move mountains, if it gains momentum. A good example would be the Live Aid campaign of the 1980's which was largely due to images creating a compassion for the victims of the Ethiopian famine. Anger too played a large role as governments stood back and just watched. It took Sir Bob Geldof 's sheer determination to get commitments and action to help. I doubt if those same TV images would have that effect now. People are too used to seeing them now and the market and media interest for human interest stories is very small. Celebrity is king. What makes me so angry about 21st century images, like the one above, is often the response to the photographs. There is no response.


.kat. said...

Powerful post Rich! I lived
in the Philippines for a little
while during the overthrow
of the Marco reign. It was a
scary time. I've been there
many times as a kid growing
up as that is where my Mom
is from. There is so much
poverty in the cities. I'll need
to tell you about some of my
experiences there.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comments Kat. The photo just touched a nerve. I wasn't even sure whether i should post it. In many ways it gives a few hints to why I became slightly disillusioned with certain aspects of photojournalism. We are just overloaded with images of suffering that the viewing public become hardened to. One World Press Photo juror remarked this year that '90% of the pictures submitted were about 10% of the world and that the industry is in essence reactionary and unrealistic in its understanding of the changes in global media and society'. I just don't see the point in taking a photograph unless it is USED to resolve the issue it's covering. A foolish thought but, hey, that's what i think photography should do. :o)

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