Photography can change the world. We all can list many cases in which a single photo has made a tremendous difference in war politics, awareness and push for social issues and even changed individual people’s fates. See, for example, William Albert Allard’s iconic photo of little Peruvian shepherd Eduardo, which, once published in the National Geographic, spurred action by readers who contributed to restore his sheep flock and to the development of his village.
But I am not talking about the impact of photographs on people’s attitudes and actions here. I am talking about the impact of photography on the life of the photographer. And, collectively, on how the act of photographing can then change society itself.
Photography is about noticing. It’s about looking hard at the world around us. Evaluating why it deserves attention and identifying that subject of importance. It’s also about finding or even creating beauty – often in unassuming places – that merits other people’s attention, too. It’ about connecting with other people at an emotional level and communicating with them.
So definitely photography can be a medicine prescribed to young people who need to gain confidence in who they are and the value of what they have to say. It’s great nourishment for those who don’t see anything beautiful around them and in their lives. It’s fantastic for those whose voices are not heard in society. It’s empowerment, personal development and growth.
Photography is an act of study, just as any other way of studying the world. It can surprise you, because you may start with some initial thought in mind about your subject, yet your study may lead you in a different direction, to a greater depth of understanding. It’s critical analysis of what you see.
But it’s also an emotional evolution. You can’t not start caring more about what you actually photograph. If I led a workshop of photography for kids at risk, the first exercise I’d assign would be to photograph their friends, neighbors and community. It would be a great community network building, just like neighborhood stores participating in Halloween trick-or-treating. Or the local police department sponsoring a soccer league.
The documentary Born into Brothels (2004) illustrates this kind of change that photography can make. Photographer Zena Briski, set to document the red lights district in Kolkata, befriends the children of prostitutes and decides to teach them photography in return for access to their neighborhood. Armed with cameras, kids find unexpected beauty and their photos become statements of how they see the world. One of them participated in an important international photo exhibition and all made strides toward their education, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
This documentary turned out to give the beginning of a project, named Kids with Cameras, a non-profit organization teaching the art of photography to marginalized children in communities around the world.
This is not just for kids, though. Yes, we now complain that photography is everywhere: on the tip of everybody’s cellphones even. But complaining about that is like complaining that we can speak. There’s chatter, but then there’s poetry, too.