Bearing Witness (Part II): Show & Tell
As a child, many of you likely participated in the schoolroom ritual of "Show and Tell" ... you bring a coveted item - anything from a special eraser to a hamster - stand up in front of the class, and describe said item and its very special meaning to 24 (or more) pairs of variably interested, somewhat voyeuristic eyes. Selection of the special item was painstaking and influenced, in part, by how likely it might be to elicit a high score on the "cool" scale ... moreso than how personally special it might actually be. An insect-eating lizard earned far more style points than a cozy stuffed dinosaur. "Impactful" was ultimately defined largely by the beholder, not the presenter, which seemed to negate, at least in part, the purpose of the assignment.
A LENS blog post from a few weeks back highlighted the work of war photographer Don McCullin, age 77. Considered one of the premier photojournalists of his time, Mr. McCullin has come to doubt the impact of his photography - which he discussed publicly upon receiving a lifetime achievement award this year. If the purpose of his documentary photography was to raise awareness about the atrocities of war, he has come away from his career living with the guilt of its documentation, and realizing the modern world where war persists despite its awareness. In his words, "We haven’t changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering.” From where he sits, his intended purpose and its ultimate outcome somehow missed one another. (One might also consider that Mr. McCullin's expectations of his photography, and humanity for that matter, may be unreasonably high.)
Photography often embodies a dissonance between intention and reception. If the intended purpose is to bear witness that begets action, the reception today may be more a passive witness, a phenomenon that is exacerbated by sheer volume of information. For Mr. McCullin, one might argue that the relative scarcity and delay of images during the Vietnam war made the images that appeared far more horrific, pushing public sentiment and spurring the protest that helped catalyze the war's end. Perhaps our world today has become desensitized to war and its horrific images - or maybe, we just choose not to view them - because we have that choice. Photography's challenge is finding the sweet spot where intention and reception intersect - where an image has the power to elicit a feeling, and - if necessary - spur action.
When one frames a photograph, it is purposeful, but it is also personal - the image contained within its borders is intentional based on a story or a meaning that resonates personally. But "taking the picture" is not the whole story. There is a second step that involves selection of the image for public display and consumption - where a photographer balances her own feelings with how the image will be broadly perceived, and the impact it is likely to generate. As in many professions and activities, the audience is very much the most critical part of the equation, ultimately defining the meaning of what is shown and the story that is told.
An old lesson, relearned.