Photography As Witness

by David Galalis

More insights and inspiration from IGVP's emerging grassroots thought-leader, David Galalis.

A recent article in The New Republic asked whether we can rescue great photojournalism (article).  Among other questions, it wrestled with whether photojournalism could ever really alter the course of history for the better.  Specifically, it recalled that when the craft was in its infancy, there was an expectation that by showing images of injustice, photography would provoke viewers to take action. 

While this certainly does happen on a case by case basis, it is difficult to say that the world is a more just and peaceful place since the advent of photography.  But why?  The basic formula seems logical enough: the average person doesn't want to suffer or bring suffering upon another person, so if you show her the negative consequences of her nation’s actions and inactions (or her own or her neighbor's), the world will become more just and peaceful.

The fallacy of this thinking is that while conflict photojournalism may in fact cause people to recoil from violence, it generally offers no alternative path to follow.  And so, at the end of the day, we are only left with a pile of images that reflect the devastating consequences of our innately fragile humanity.  

Photo: Nevine Zaki, Christians protecting Muslims during prayer in Tahrir Square

Photo: Nevine Zaki, Christians protecting Muslims during prayer in Tahrir Square

But take instead Nevine Zaki's image of Christians protecting Muslims in their afternoon prayer in Tahrir Square that Matt Brandon recently blogged about hereOr the images of Muslims attending Coptic Christmas mass in a show of solidarity after the Alexandria bombing.  Here is something truly "new" in the midst of the common mentality.  In seeing these images, suddenly I am moved to ask:  "Who are these people?  Why do they risk their lives to show solidarity with people who are supposedly different from them?"  In short, I am moved to enter into their history, to try to understand their lives, and even to imitate them.  I have been changed in some way by an encounter with a different humanity.

As far and few between as these instances may or may not be, visual peacemakers have an opportunity to expand the world's reduced self-image.  It is not true that war and mistrust is all that exists between cultures and religions, and that somehow we need to conjure up "peace" from nothing.  Peace already exists, even if on a minute scale.  There is a concrete path already there to follow, in the witness of those who are living in peace, no matter how few or fragile they are.  As visual peacemakers, it is our task to point to those witnesses with our images, as if to say: "There!  Follow those people if you want to live as they do.  This is what you have been looking for."  To the extent we succeed in doing this, we will rescue great photojournalism.

-- David Galalis

Amidst the revolution and current events in Egypt, let's take a moment to reflect on the beauty and daily life of average people...  click on an image to be taken to the full gallery.

Egypt, may you experience the justice and freedom you seek! --IGVP

Photo: Jason LaBombard, Egypt

Photo: Jason LaBombard, Egypt

Photo: Marco Ryan, Egypt

Photo: Marco Ryan, Egypt