Politicizing photography

When an invitation to lecture on photojournalism as part of a workshop for campus journalists of a Manila-based university came to me yesterday, my first instinct was, of course, to dismiss it as the organizers’ last-ditch effort to fill in for some better-known, older photojournalist who only recently backed out. And though I do dabble in it now and then, I do not really consider my knowledge and experience in photojournalism enough to talk about it authoritatively. But hey, the organizers said all I had to teach is the basics, something I think I can handle. What excites me about this is that as a political journalist I am bound to bring in a different perspective on photojournalism and photography that immersed practitioners often leave out in discussions. Searching online, I immediately came across a blog devoted to studying the politics and theory of photography, which has some nice quotes from various thinkers and writers. I am still thinking if I can use these quotes for the lecture, which must inevitably devote a substantial portion to the basic technical aspects of photojournalism. Nevertheless, these quotes are invariably addressed to photographers, some of which I hope may be reading this entry.

“[P]hotographs depend for their meaning on networks of authority. The image supplies little in itself. What counts is its use and the power to fix a particular interpretation of the events, objects or people depicted. Some people, and especially some institutions, have much more clout in this processs than others do.” ~ Steve Edwards

“I have said that a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised. The choice is not between photographing x and y, but between photographing at x moment or y moment. . . . What varies is the intensity with which we are made aware of the poles of absence and presence. Between these two poles photography finds its proper meaning. … A photograph, while recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum. … Hence the necessity of our understanding a weapon we can use and which can be used against us.” ~ John Berger

This one is addressed to photographers covering social conflicts:

“There is something embarrassing in … the way in which, … turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, … wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization … makes an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice.” ~ T.W. Adorno

“The first question must always be: Who is using this photograph, and to what end?” ~ David Levi Strauss

And here is the best, kickass quote, from filmmaker Wim Wenders (director of one of my all-time favorite films, Buena Vista Social Club):

“The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes. In other words, what you show people, day in and day out, is political. . . . And the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show her, every day, that there can be no change.” ~ Wim Wenders

Quotes taken from


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