The unending idealism of the committed photojournalist is as strong as ever.
September/October 1991
By Carol Squiers
Art Director: Mark Gartland

Mary Ellen Mark's subjects run the gamut from runaway children in Seattle (above) to prostitutes in India; a new book of her work, Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, is due out in September, accompanying her retrospective at New York's International Center of Photography Midtown.

Magnum photographer Eugene Richards has specific and serious goals in mind when he makes photographs. "I want people to look at my images and get angry," he says. Richards, 47, often succeeds. He has made some of the most harrowing contemporary pictures of poverty, violence, and the drug culture, thereby earning a reputation as one of his generation's premier "concerned" photographers. "If I photograph someone who is hungry," he explains, "they should look so hungry that you are too upset to eat."

That is Richards's strategy for promoting social change ‑using the camera to illuminate and expose the human dimension of injustice and misfortune. Confronted with such sights, viewers of his photographs may be moved to an emotional response ‑which still photography is particularly good at eliciting‑ that W. Eugene Smith once called "compassionate horror."

Richards would be the first to say that his aspiration to effect change is just that ‑an aspiration. But he's certainly not alone. Photographers have long persisted in making images meant to inform and persuade, even when their messages were not popular. Currently there seems to be a genuine resurgence of this type of photography. Within the next few months a number of documentary‑photography and photojournalism books will appear, along with exhibitions in galleries and museums. Partly this is the result of changes in the publishing business‑there are fewer magazines running big photo stories now­ and partly it is the result of a wide‑ranging willingness to confront social problems, a taking‑stock after the boom-economy illusions of the 1980s.

But can pictures really help change the world? Photographers continue to come up with inventive ways of trying to do just that. For instance, in 1990 the writer and photographer team Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson used the royalties from their Pulitzer Prizewinning book about the offspring of Alabama tenant farmers, And Their Children After Them, to set up a scholarship fund at the University of Alabama, with preference being given to descendants of tenant farmers. Sebastião Salgado's extraordinary pictures of Africa's famine‑ridden Sahel were collected in a book that was a best seller in France, with proceeds going to a charitable French doctors' organization.

This kind of fundraising is nothing new. According to photo historian Naomi Rosenblum, the first photographs used to a socially beneficial end were taken in 1845 by the Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Like Salgado's pictures from the Sahel, Hill and Adamson's were used to raise funds, in this case for the fishermen of a village in Scotland.

It wasn't until the latter 19th century that photographs began to be made purposely to show social problems and effect social change. In the United States, a New York Herald Tribune police reporter named Jacob Riis was the first to use photographic images in his crusade to clean up the immigrant slums of lower Manhattan. Reproducing his photographs in articles and books ‑his book How the Other Half Lives was a best seller ‑Riis consciously directed his message to influential people who had the power to help alter what he was protesting against.

After Riis's unexpected success, the numerous social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries enthusiastically adopted photography as one of their most effective tools. But so many pictures were produced within a decade that reform photography quickly seemed to lose much of its impact.

The man who revitalized it was Lewis Hine, whose sympathetic pictures of immigrants arriving at New York's Ellis Island and child laborers taken in the first decades of this century introduced a new and unequivocal humanism to reform photography.

In the 1930s socially conscious photography was taken up again in the United States when the federal government funded the photo project of the Farm Security Administration. From 1935 to 1942 photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans, Russell Lee, and Ben Shahn produced 270,000 images that graphically told the story of the effects of the Depression and drought on the country's farmers and rural towns.

Since that time, such photography has gone in and out of favor for a variety of reasons. The left‑leaning documentarians of the Photo League fell victim to McCarthyism in the early 1950s. Through the 1960s and '70s, photography seemed to become more introverted, personal, and artistic or more blatantly commercial.

In the last 15 years, however, the number of photographers producing work on social issues seems to have grown, and they are producing not just images but entire projects that are more sophisticated than ever before.

Matrix photographer Stephen Shames, for instance, has collected his edgy black‑and‑white images of child poverty, produced mainly between 1984 and 1989, in a 1991 book, Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America (Aperture). But he doesn't rely only on his pictures to communicate his message; he also uses statistics on child poverty and his own commentary about his subjects. Further, the book's afterword is written by Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of Washington, D.C's Children's Defense Fund, who tells what concrete steps the average citizen can take to remedy the situation. For every book sold, Aperture will make a donation to the fund. The book is unapologetically activist but maintains its identity as a photographic work.

Another photographer who emerges from ‑and then goes beyond‑ the black‑and‑white documentary tradition is Donna Ferrato. She started photographing battered women in 1981, before the subject was commonly recognized as a national problem. Her prescient concern wasn't shared by the illustrated magazines, however, which for years weren't interested in her pictures. Despite this, Ferrato, a Black Star photographer, pursued the story. Her dedication panned out when she won the prestigious W Eugene Smith Award for photojournalism in 1985; editors soon began calling her. Since then her work has won her the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Humanistic Photography in 1989 and the Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournal­ism in 1991.

Ferrato's pictures are painful in part because they are uniquely immediate; she photographs troubled families by traveling with local police. "The world is so brutal today," Ferrato comments. "Many photographers are showing more than has been shown before‑and that really makes some people mad." Ferrato says she wants people to focus on her subject, not on her photography. "The only purpose of my work," she says emphatically, "is to show what is happening and get people to talk about it.”

The list of photographers who are in­volved in long‑term projects on thorny issues is very long. J.B. Pictures' Maggie Steber developed a deep interest in Haiti, encompassing not only the violence of its politics but the fortitude of its people. Magnum's Gilles Peress has done a 20‑year documentation of the trouble in Northern Ireland; his work was mounted in a traveling exhibition by the Chicago Art Institute this summer. Sebastião Salgado continues work on a far‑reaching documentation of industrial and rural labor around the world. Runaway children in Seattle were documented by Mary Ellen Mark in a book of photographs and an extraordinary documentary film, both named Streetwise. Some photographers risk all: Soviet photographer Igor Kostin was exposed to massive levels of radiation when he began photographing the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

One rather unique undertaking is called Shooting Back. It is the brainchild of Washington, D.C., photographer Jim Hubbard, who in 1987 began informally teaching photography to homeless children living in shelters. Soon he was recruiting volunteers to teach them both photography and writing, "trying to give them some of the opportunities wealthier kids have."

"It was the kids' idea to show their own lives," Hubbard says, explaining the origin of the group's moniker. "They feel that they are made to look pathetic by traditional photographers. They have a more humane and spirited view of themselves." So successful has Hubbard's program been that it was incorporated as a nonprofit institution in 1989. In addition, he will start a program in Minnesota for native American children and another in Romania.

Another inventive approach to pho­tography was conceived by some visually oriented AIDS activists, who use seductive photographs ‑often appropriated from other sources or made to their own specifications‑ to push their messages. One such group is the Manhattan‑based Gran Fury, which grew out of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP.

It's impossible to measure the exact results of all this photo‑activism. Photographers who persevered in producing often unsaleable images with a message throughout the upbeat 1980s are now starting to get recognition for them. Greater institutional support seems to have developed for this kind of work; in 1988 Kodak inaugurated the Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournalism to recognize photojournalism that "has had an acknowledged impact on society." And in 1990 the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography was established, with winners receiving cash awards and a promise of publication in Mother Jones magazine.

Despite the renewed interest in socially concerned imagery, many photographers are of two minds about how much they can achieve. "I constantly question my own work," says Eugene Richards. "Photography and activism are two different things. I'm not going to be the one who saves the world; I wish I was." In the next breath, however, he voices the idealism that keeps many going: "I'd like my work to elicit dialogue. I want people to look at a kid on drugs and get upset. I don't want them to be able to remain passive." Richards is aiming to arouse the "compassionate horror" that W Eugene Smith spoke of -and to similar ends. Like Smith he wants to use it to "prod the conscience" of his viewers and inspire them to take action. Whether photography can still accomplish that is an open‑but important-question.