The New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition has rapidly become New Zealand’s biggest and most prestigious photography competition. I have been one of the four judges for the last two years, and this year I was delighted to be asked to give the Keynote address at the awards ceremony in Auckland on October 24.
I think about photography 7 days a week, so this was a good excuse for some more research and thinking about the place of photography in our world, and the power of photography. The presentation was so well received, that I thought that I’d share the Introduction to it with you.
Auckland, New Zealand, 24 October 2013
The Light and the Darkness – The Power of Photography
So, we’re all photographers now, aren’t we? Everyone has a camera of some kind, even if just their mobile phone or I-thingy. 350 million – that’s how many photos were uploaded to Facebook today – 4000 per second. Candid, instant, ephemeral – mostly of me, me and me, the dumb, the funny, the cute, the “my holiday was better than yours”, puppies and last weekend’s party.
But there’s another kind of photography too, always has been since photography was invented – created by serious passionate photographers.
Until recently, the best photos, those that stay in your mind for years, were taken by professional photographers, typically on assignment: Afghan Girl, Napalm Girl, Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, Robert Kapa’s D-Day landings … Most if not all of the photos from conflict zones were taken by professional photographers.
But we’re getting rid of professional editorial photographers, they are being laid off in droves. And the newspapers and magazines who commissioned them, and where the photos ended up being shown to the world, are disappearing rapidly. Those still with us are struggling.
Then again, professional or amateur – does it really matter? What does matter is that there are photographers who really care about photography. They are passionate about it. They tell stories, they ask questions, they sometime make us search our consciences. They remind us that the world can be a brutal, unforgiving place. But they also remind us that the world can be unbelievably beautiful. They show us the light and the darkness.
Some photos help stop wars [Napalm Girl and similar photos helped bring the Vietnam war to a close earlier than it might otherwise have], some photos help start wars [Ron Haviv’s photo on cover of Time was one of the reasons why George Bush gave the go-ahead to invading Panama], and some help relieve the suffering that war always causes – Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” resulted in various organisations being set up to help alleviate the suffering in Afghanistan, and also inspired many volunteers to help in refugee camps.
Most photos don’t have such big impact, obviously, but many of the good photos do make a difference. They help us to better know, understand and appreciate our world and the people in it.
Now most of us photographers aren’t cut out to be Steve McCurrys – can’t be, don’t want to be – but many of us do try to make a difference, to help document the world, to help us all to better appreciate it and to better deal with the challenges we face. This happens quietly, mostly, but it does happen. Every day. In my case, my photos get used in many places from NZ Geographic magazine to conservation campaigns to the 18 books I’ve written and photographed that end up in classrooms and school libraries in many countries. Many of my colleagues in New Zealand and around the world tell similar stories. We try to make a difference.
So, don’t underestimate the power of great photos, or the quiet power of good photos. Photos help us understand our world, our place in the world, our responsibilities and the possibilities for a better future.