August 19 is celebrated as World Photography Day and this is a good reason to revisit the power of photography and its capacity to reflect, opine and even change our world.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in these times of information overflow, it seems even more powerful than that. Think of the effect a single photograph in one corner of the world impacts another corner within minutes. This is true of human events, natural disasters and even mundane every life.
In a fundamental way, photographs help to capture the present, but also to re-understand the past. While, in the past, important events have been captured in paintings, those always tended to be impressions of the artist who is choosing to focus on one thing and can just erase the background and everything surrounding the main frame.
Not so in photographs. A more objective medium, we go back to old, historic photographs today and see more than what a photo was originally intended for. For example, in a procession led by a famous personality, while the photo may focus on the main dignitaries, today we can look at those in the background, the carriage coachman, surrounding common people, the buildings, some grand and others not, even the pavement lights, hand lit every night. Each frame gives us a story of a time which we do not know much about. In short, we choose what we want to focus on, even if the photo is the same as the one taken almost 200 years ago.
There are countless examples of the power of photographs to change the world, if only temporarily. Trench warfare, nuclear explosions, photos of aerial bombings, all such images brought a distant war into homes, making common people aware of pain and suffering far away. This led to many anti-war campaigns and calls for social changes around the world.
Nowhere is photography more powerful today than in documenting climate change. Powerful visuals of recurring wildfires, melting glaciers, parched fields and empty taps are a potent reminder of the damage that is being inflicted on the planet. Pictures of a baby duck stuck in a plastic bag, upturned cars swept away like paper boats in a flash flood or even half burnt children’s toys left by somebody fleeing a forest fire are all images that, unfortunately, crowd our social media sites.
This is not to take away from the sheer beauty and poetry of photography. More than any other medium, photos have connected the world. As we see how other cultures greet, cook, work and laugh together, it is a reminder that all humans share the same experience of life, its struggles and its beauty. The stillness of a photo reflects the depth, meaning and endless potential of life and our surroundings. It is also a reminder that the medium, sometimes, can be the message.