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Social Imapct of Photography Essay

In politics, images have always made governments very nervous because of their powerfully persuasive and propagandistic potentialities.

(In 1835 – before photography – the Emperor Louis-Philippe banned caricatures, describing them as ‘acts of violence’ too dangerous to go unchecked…)

Then along came the photographic image: swift, visceral, intense, realistic, and clothed in an authenticity unlike any mode of illustration before. Not even a masterpiece painting possessed the lifelike and painfully truthful nature so capable of producing responses resembling human reactions to actual sight of people, things, places and situations. If (as described) pen and line illustrations and painting and sculpture evoked varied and often violent responses from especially the Church and State, photographs made both these Institutions more nervous still.

Still today, photographs are feared by politicians. In South African Israeli and Chinese histories, not to speak of American and European ones, proves of this ‘nervousness’ (to put it mildly!) can be found.

Prohibitions against photographs testify directly to their power. Suppression works…

The existence of certain photographs in our own recent history have changed and re-directed the courses of whole nations.

Likewise, the absence of photographs can have great consequences. This is illustrated by the following: In India, in 1946, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the then Moslem League, was diagnosed, through X-ray photography, as having severe tuberculosis. He had only about two or three years to live… Yet, he swore his doctor to secrecy concerning the state of his health.

The X-rays were locked away, and he continued his work towards the creation of the Moslem State of Pakistan, which he successfully accomplished in August of 1947. It is surmised that had his sickness become known (as borne out by the X-ray photographs) his political support might not have been strong enough to result in the establishment of Pakistan…

In this, the very late 20th century, we know full well (from first hand experience) the influence – both positive and negative – of photography.

In fact: almost like an addict is under the influence of his drug, so are we (as Citizens of the World) under the constant, unrelenting influence of photographs.

Photography came into a world that was already crazy about pictures and drove it positively ‘mad’. We have become collectively addicted. Photographs took up residence in our daily lives; they moved in, and they practically took over. It is now indeed impossible to imagine life without them…

Photographs sell newspapers and magazines. This is a truth that became evident already in 1842 with The Illustrated London News, the world’s first (at first non-photographic) illustrated magazine. It was a weekly magazine.

Others followed in vast numbers, so that when photography arrived, the scene was already set for its use. Until the 1890’s, all of the illustrations were lithographs and engravings, but from about this time onwards, the halftone, and photography took over. In one week in 1899, The Illustrated London News carried twenty-eight photographs and only nineteen drawings.

And this led to the inevitable happening: Photographs soon became superabundant, transient and superfluous, as, perhaps, some say, it still is today.

A photograph has power only if the right people see it in the right context at the right time. It must answer some need, belief, and expectations of its times. If the audience is not ready for the message, the image may be seen, but the message will not be recognized. (Like telling a child about sex when he or she is too young to understand; they hear what their age permits, and ignore the rest!).

Certain categories can be created corresponding to the types of photograph and what kind of influence they exert – revelation, proof, political persuasion, social reform, etc. – but these categories are not rigid and necessarily exclusive to a photograph of a different category.

These are the suggested categories, as identified by Vicky Goldberg in her book, The Power of Photography (Goldberg, G. 1991. The power of photography. New York: Abbeville Press).

1. The photograph as a proof and witness.

2. The photograph as a revelation of discovery.

3. The photograph as a detective.

4. The photograph as a political tool.

5. The photograph as a recorder of fame and celebrity.

6. The photograph as an icon.

7.The photograph as a medium for social reform.

8.The photograph as catalyst.

This lecture comes to you as an adaptation and very much condensed interpretation of the Introduction from the abovementioned book. Acknowledgement is hereby given. Also: See it as an introduction to Assignment 06. (Refer to the separate Assignment Briefing).

I have scanned and converted to pdf my copy of the book. See the additional pdf document file titled ‘vic200s 2014_p09_additional’.

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