How Photography is Changing History


Image: Unsplash

No matter what medium we’re talking about, many people believe in the power of art to change the world. Whether it be an influential song, a seminal piece of literature, or a heart-stopping photograph, there are plenty of examples that showcase the power of the arts to influence culture, politics, and history. Today, we’re going to take a look at how photography, specifically, is changing history.

Alan Kurdi by Nilufer Demir (2015)

This photo of a drowned 3-year-old boy on a beach in Turkey highlights the harsh reality of the life-and-death risks refugees face when fleeing the Syrian War. As it circulated on social media, this photo became the defining image of the Syrian refugee crisis. As this tragedy shed light on the issue, European nations were prompted to open their borders to refugees in order to avoid the deaths of other children like Alan Kurdi.

The Death of Neda by Unknown (2009)

This photograph captures the face of Neda Agha-Soltan who was allegedly shot by a pro-government sniper during a protest in Iran. When this photo was taken in 2009, Iran was experiencing the worst civil unrest the country had seen since the revolution in 1979. The state had barred most foreign media, making this photo a rare glimpse into the realities of the situation inside the country. This image was also one of the first to “go viral,” demonstrating the power of the internet in disseminating photography and helping it to impact the world.

Gorilla In the Congo by Brent Stirton (2007)

This photo of a dead silverback gorilla who was killed after violence erupted in Virgunga National Park highlighted the innocent animals who are often blameless victims of human conflict. It also reminds viewers that humans are not only killing endangered animals through environmental destruction, but through direct violence. Three months after this photograph was published, a treaty was signed between nine African countries to help protect the Virunga mountain gorillas.

Iraqi Girl at Checkpoint by Chris Hondros (2005)

This photo shows a young Iraqi girl who had been orphaned mere moments before by U.S. soldiers who killed her parents at a checkpoint. This image, among others surfacing at the time, prompted the American military to review and revise some of its procedures. More importantly, this photo helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the Iraq War as Americans began to question the violence committed against citizens who they were supposed to be “liberating”.

Famine in Somalia by James Nachtwey (1992)

Photographer James Nachtwey returned from the 1992 famine in Somalia with several haunting images. One photo in particular of an emaciated woman in a wheelbarrow made a big impact after it was published in the New York Times Magazine. The public support initiated by the photo in favour of organisations such as The Red Cross is said to have been the largest since the Second World War. As a result, one and a half million lives were saved.

Bosnia by Ron Haviv (1992)

American photographer Ron Haviv captured a Serb kicking a Muslim woman who had been shot by Serbians as ethnic tensions were rising in Bosnia. After TIME published the photo, debate sparked internationally over how other countries should respond to the conflict. When the leader of the nationalist militia was later indicted for crimes against humanity this photo was used as evidence against him, demonstrating how photography can sway not just the court of public opinion, but the courts of law as well.

When it comes to the biggest crises in our collective lives as humans, whether that be war, famine, or environmental destruction, photography has an unparalleled power to showcase the realities of those tragedies. While it is tempting to ignore life’s hardships, photography makes that response impossible and galvanises both individuals and governments to effect big changes that have the power to shape history.

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