Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by john mackay, Jun 20, 2005.

  1. Described as "An American Holocaust" by Congressman, John Lewis this book details what would have to rank as the sickest period in American history. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America details many of the photographs taken at the carnivals of lynchings and mutilations of over thousands of African Americans. Many of these photographs were reproduced as postcards and sold as souvenirs.
    Two things I find most despairing is firstly, the number of books written on the subject -- and there are a few. Secondly, that the US senate has taken a leaf out of the Australian Government by offering what the Miami Herald points to as a "resolution of regret" for this period by the U.S. senate some four years after this indictment on American policy of the times was first published.
    I'm not posting this to be yet another breast beating white fella but as a photographer who now questions the notion of photography as an agent of social change. So, my question is:
    "Is photography the heroic agent of change it believes itself to be, was it ever an agent of change -- is it still?" Or are we just kidding ourselves
  2. Photography is an agent of change if the things it depicts are brought to the attention of people who 1) find those things unacceptable and 2) have some power to change them. Photography can make it more difficult to deny the reality of things that have happened (or are happening).
  3. What a great summary, Mike.
  4. Mike, thanks for your succinct answer :)) However, I must confess that for me it doesn't address the question -- it avoids it. You've simply posited a theoretical hypothesis that if x circumstances were present then the hypothesis could be said to be proven. It doesn't demonstrate how photography has or hasn't been a catalyst for change. I think an example might help the discussion along.
    An obvious example is the transition in war reportage from the 'heroic' depictions of war (up to WWII) to the more sceptical war reportage of the Vietnam conflict two decades later. In this instance I can see how images such as Pulitzer Prize recipient Nick Ut's shot of a young napalmed Kim Phuc confronted a nation with the innocent casualties of war and added to the rising tide of national protest. These were the images a public couldn't ignore. These were images that galvanised an American public into saying "This is NOT who we are".
    Interestingly, the United States public were not the only ones to profit from open access war reportage. The United States military quickly learned that managing access to information in the war environment (Operation Desert Storm, Afganistan and Iraq) helped ensure that public opinion worked for it instead of against it.
    The real question could be defined then as: "Does photo-journalism still have the power to tell it's story in the context of todays highly managed reporting environment and conservative corporate media management or has it become an unwitting lackey of propaganda?
  5. That is a very powerful thread John, I agree that answers don't always come when you want them. Simple answers seem logical but lack the human otherness we expect of others, as humans. Anyhow, I believe that change in the way people see life, be it photographic, or not, is ineviatbley very slow. I am a changin' man, personally, and I find people who remain the same in their views and mind-sets to be rather weird. Some people will say that the only agent of change is yourself, but I disagree. If I live in a city and interact with changes then my life will be more fruitful. If I live in a remote and isolated place with no change, then i will become depressed. Change is dependant on the 'Other', or the viewer.

    I think that photography is a tool that can make changes, but that's only because I want it to make changes, personally. It is what you make it, John. You can kid yourself by thinking your opinion matters, or that somebody cares. Or you can stand your ground and let people care about your opinion, that matters more.

    I find the horror of war very strange, the Lynchings and sickness that prevails in this world is extremely odd and terrible. I find that the objective nature of photography could indeed be a very powerful agent of change.

    I think if I could take only one photo it would be of the wonderful people who lived on to fight agaist the Lynchings, the survivors.

  6. I appreciate the sentiment Ben, but I personally find photgraphy of "evil" mre stimulating to discontent, and thus potential action, than photograpy of such things as "rightous protest."

    I don't think there is any question that images are more powerful than words- this predates photography going all the way back to when newspapers were illustrated. I recall specifically the powerful effect that Pulitzer's illustrations had on public opinion.

    It is important to remember, however, that images can be manipulated, and can also be manipulative. It depends on what you do to the images themselves, or which images you choose to show. This is evident when comparing, say, American new reprtage with European or Asian. Recalling Pulitzer, do you remember his famous dictum to his reporter in Cuba in the 1890s?

    "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war."
  7. Photography itself is a neutral tool for communcation, no different in that regard to spoken language. Photography is its own language, one that crosses borders with little problems. The differences come from the people who use the tools. Language can be used to manipulate, inform, incite, shock, etc...Photography can be used for the same purposes. But, without communication nothing would ever change. So yes, I believe photography is one of many agents of change be it social, political, or personal. Photography in and of itself cannot affect change in the world, it needs help from photographers first, the public, the lawmakers, the leaders(government, social, religious, teachers...). I think the main question is not whether photography can help create change but whether or not that change is good; a much more difficult question.
  8. Very well said... t
  9. I agree with Michael Young, and I'm not a sentimental guy.

  10. in an Saturday's article titled:
    Illusions of grandeur: Photography can make leaders - or bring them down. Germaine Greer on image, power and paranoia.
    Illusions of grandeur

Share This Page