by Charalambos Giannakopoulos
Photography has been, since its birth, and to a degree continues to be today, a revolutionary means of communication. I did not reach this conclusion because the leaders of the French Revolution saw the revolutionary character of the new means and adopted it officially, but as we will see following, because this has been proven in action. Of course, in some cases photography played and still plays negative roles, as when it becomes informer and snitcher for the secret services or when, in the pursuit of profit by the well-known paparazzi, it deviates into scandal mongering roles. As the secret services and the paparazzi are using it though for oppression and disorientation of the citizens, the real photographers can and have succeeded in various ways to defend citizen’s rights, to transform and project social reality and progress.
THE IMMORTALIZATION OF THE GREAT HISTORIC EVENTS
From its inception, photography tried to capture and record the great historic events. British photographer Roger Fenton is the first, in 1855, to capture scenes from the war in Crimea. His primitive equipment as well as the preventive censorship of the British Authorities, clarifying that he could not exhibit photos showing the war horror because this would terrify the families of the soldiers at the front, resulted to the presentation of 360 photos picturing only the war illusion of soldiers orderly lining up in the back trenches.
What Fenton failed in Crimea was achieved by American photographer, Mathew Brady, who through commercial motives and better equipment managed to capture and show the horrors of the American civil war.
“Brady’s pictures”, writes Giselle Freund in her book: photography and Society’ (Publication of the periodical Photographer, Athens 1996), “show, for the first time in history, a clear picture of horror. The burnt land, the looted houses, the war stricken families and the hecatomb of the dead are pictured in a certain objective manner that gives these documents a special value”.
The primitive equipment and the limited for mass communication potential of photography, at the time, left very little space to influence the broad public. Nevertheless, Fenton’s and Brady’s efforts showed the tremendous potential of this medium for the future.
At the end of 19th century, thanks to the significantly improved photo technology and the invention of photo printing, the mass communication potential of photography took off. The first picture, published on March 4, 1880, in the newspaper Daily Graphics of New York, showed characteristically and prophetically as to its future role in Photo journalism,ashantytown. It took, though, many years of perfecting this technology connecting photo with press so as to render its important role in mass communication.
MEANS OF DOCUMENTATION AND SOCIAL CRITICISM
The first to use photography as means of documentation and social criticism was not a photographer but a journalist of the “New York Tribune”, Jacob Riese. He accompanied his articles about the miserable life conditions of the immigrants in the poor neighborhoods of New York with photos verifying his allegations for the prevailing conditions. His book entitled ‘How the other half lives’, published in 1890, literally shook the American society, especially due to the pictures, the undisputed documents of the situation.
A few years later, in the beginning of the 20th century, sociologist Louis Hein, took pictures of children working twelve hours a day in the factories and the fields. These pictures published in his book of relevant subject not only shook the public but influenced the change and improvement of labor legislation for the underage. Thus, from its first steps, photography as a tool of mass communication establishes the basic roles: record great historic events, document sociological and journalistic researches and dynamically influences the mobilization of public opinion toward social and legislative reforms.
The beginning of photography in mass communication became by non-professional photographers and was revolutionary. It showed the potential of the medium to project major social issues, defend the weak and oppressed social strata, promote social awareness and contribute to the establishment of social justice and progressive reforms. Once photography appeared widely in the press, professional photo reporters wrote their own history in the mass media. Photo reporting, blooming in the first half of the previous century, followed the same road the press did. On one hand, it gave with self-denial, professional integrity and dignity the struggle for exact and valid reporting. On the other, it played the game of communication journalism, presenting a fictitious reality as produced by today’s mass media in the service of interests of the power elite.
SCRATCHING WOUNDS VIS-À-VIS ANY POWER AUTHORITY
Despite this long negative evolution of mass media: creating suffocating operational conditions for journalists and photographers, the real operators of information (journalists, photographers) gave their best self , paying many times the expensive price by losing their lives on duty, by defending with their pen and lens respectively, simple people from injustice and persecution. “Hundreds, if not thousands, photos became world famous for showing significant events and social issues by scratching wounds and transforming them into pictures”, writes in a recent article Christian Cajole, director of Photo Agency and Gallery VU in Paris (‘Battles for the Media’ Savvalas Publications, Athens 2007).
The capturing, recording and projecting of reality, through mass media, is neither an easy affair nor something given. That is why, today more than ever, photographers themselves need to defend their role and professional dignity by refusing to become executive organs of those who have interests in controlling mass media with the purpose to manipulate public opinion in the direction of the interests of the power elite.
The photographer, like the journalist, today, has to choose either to promote the interests of the powerful, showing and promoting a fictitious reality, or to scratch wounds and transform them into photos recording reality and uncovering the fictitious one that authorities like to show. There is, simply, no middle way.