Can Photography Affect Change?

by David Walker

©Joseph Rodriguez
From the "Reentry in Los Angeles" project by Joseph Rodriguez, who won a grant to teach journalism students how to tell stories about ex-prisoners transitioning back into society.

Photographs can galvanize public opinion, and help change the course of history. Images helped win support for the struggle for civil rights in the US, turn the tide against the Vietnam War, and bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. There are many other examples of the power of images to affect change.

It is that potential to change the world--or even some small corner of it--that motivates many photojournalists to pursue their work, despite financial insecurity, and despite the hardship and danger in many cases.  But it is increasingly difficult to make a difference as a photojournalist. Images have proliferated, audiences have fragmented and also grown fatigued of images of disaster and suffering, and news magazines no longer provide the financial support and exposure for photojournalism that they once did. 

Photographers have responded by finding new, creative ways to approach stories, reach audiences, and bring attention to stories that can lead to positive change for the subjects. In many cases, the new approaches blur lines between journalism and advocacy. Photographers are also finding the interested partner organizations to help support their projects and to reach wider audiences. In some instances, photographers have been able to present their work to small audiences with a lot of influence, such as financiers with a hand in Africa's troubled mineral trade.

The following stories describe a variety of examples and approaches by many different photographers, covering issues of public health, the environment, economic and social justice and other issues.


Department of Health, Education and Welfare

Three case studies of photographers who have teamed up with NGOs and corporation not only for financial support, but to take their advocacy messages to wider audiences. Dana Romanoff is using her project, "No Man's Land," to advocate for immigrants in the US; Anna Maria Barry-Jester works with a multinational pharmaceutical company to raise awareness about public health issues around the globe; and filmmaker Dan Habib has teamed up with local, state, national and international NGOs to promote the inclusion of disabled kids in schools. (Available only to PDN subscribers)

Anatomy of a Successful Grant Application: Joseph Rodriguez on the Audience Engagement Grant

The photographer won a $26,000 grant from Open Society’s Documentary Photography Project to teach journalism students and youth reporters how to tell stories about people re-entering society after serving prison terms.  (Available only to PDN subscribers)

Ripple Effect Images: Photojournalists Supporting Women

To help convince policy makers and NGOs to invest in women, Annie Griffiths and several other photojournalists are making their work available to organizations that aid women and girls. (Available only to PDN subscribers)

Showcasing a Remote Wilderness in Order to Save It 

To show Canadians what could be lost if a pristine wilderness of northern British Columbia was opened to oil, gas and mining interests, photographer Paul Colangelo provided images from his two-year documentary project to newspapers, magazines and activist organizations. Public interest grew as a result, and the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on drilling. (Available only to PDN subscribers)

Bringing Documentary Photography to a Grassroots Audience 

To build public awareness of the challenges facing Afghanistan’s women, ART WORKS Projects is making its newest photo exhibition accessible, affordable and easy to display. (Available only to PDN subscribers)

The Moral Hazards of Crisis Photojournalism

NGOs end up doing more harm than good in some humanitarian crisis situations, and journalists are part of the problem, argues journalist and author Philip Gourevitch in a recent New Yorker magazine essay called “Alms Dealers.” We asked him how he thinks photojournalists might do a better job covering crisis situations. (Available only to PDN subscribers)

Photojournalists Seek New Audiences to Affect Change

After years of covering conflict in Congo, Marcus Bleasdale was frustrated by the indifference of magazine editors and the general public. So he teamed up with Human Rights Watch to exhibit the work where it would "name and shame" European financiers with ties to the gold trade that was feeding violence in Congo.

Photojournalism As Activism: A Conversation with Lynn Johnson

Photojournalist Lynn Johnson explains what's wrong with a slavish devotion to the idea of "objectivity" and dispassionate observation, and why photojournalists have to approach their work instead with passion and point of view in order to make a difference.


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