Without a doubt, photography has a great deal of power and influence as an agent for social change. Personally, photographs such as Kevin Carter’s seminal image of a starving child in Sudan and Stuart Franklin’s Tank Man image from Tiananmen Square were images that, growing up, affected me greatly. However, in more recent years, the bombardment of information brought about by the advent of the internet and, subsequently, social media has somewhat lessened the impact. There are still numerous examples of images that make an impact, often profound (in contemporary parlance, ones that ‘go viral’, with all the connotations of funny cat videos that that phrase carries): the body of three-year old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach; the Syrian man crying with his children on the beach of Kos. These, however, quickly become lost in the torrent of information and photographs documenting human suffering that we all face in our news-feeds every day.
One notable success in terms of the spread of socially conscious photography via social media, has been the Humans of New York phenomenon and its many global spin-offs. Here we see the democratic nature of the internet – real people telling their stories to an audience numbering in the millions plus. But, as is often the case, the impact of such ventures is considerably lessened by their ubiquity – it is rare that such a story will occasion more than a momentary pang of compassion, or, indeed, just of mild interest at how differently other people live, and a mouse-click on the ‘like’ button before scrolling on.
I find one of the most satisfying elements of my own photography is taking street portraits in far flung areas of the world. Ostensibly, I like to think that this is, like the eighteenth century topographical photographers, my way of sharing how people live in different parts of the world, particularly to friends back in the UK who rarely travel. However, apart from the “click like and keep scrolling” effect, I wonder whether or not this is just contributing to what has been described as “compassion porn”.
I do not doubt that photography still has the power to affect social change. However, in the deluge of information that characterises contemporary life, I don’t think it has the power to shock and thus to create lasting change anywhere near to the degree that it once did.