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How Can Photographs Help Create Social Change?

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Learn More About Documentary Photography 

Photographers often turn their lens toward disenfranchised or struggling areas to raise awareness about inequity and unfair policies. Photographer Paccarik Orue moved to San Francisco in 2008 after struggling for a handful of years in Miami, Florida as a recent immigrant to the United States. Far from his birthplace in Lima, Peru, Orue found solace in and forged a connection to some of the Bay Area’s most neglected areas: Bayview-Hunter’s Point and the city of Richmond.

[media-credit id=9619 align="aligncenter" width="640"]Paccarik Orue[/media-credit]

From 2009-2011, Orue photographed residents and structures in Richmond for his book titled, There Is Nothing Beautiful Around Here. “Because of my own immigrant experience, I seek communities that may be struggling and experiencing things that I can relate to because of my background,” Orue said.

Photojournalist Matt Black wanted to capture images that represented income inequality. His photo essay “The Geography of Poverty,” featured on The Global Oneness Project website, highlights a California community in Tulare county that suffers from a lack of water and infrastructure. How do these images convey the challenges this community faces? Does the use of black-and-white photography affect the impact of the images? How or why?

Ken and Melanie Light spent five years documenting communities in California’s Central Valley, capturing “manifestations of the lack of any sustainable or sensible water policy.” In the Central Valley, water is a major political issue with some businesses controlling more than their share, and improper farming practices have led to birth defects, among other challenges that have negatively affected farm workers and their families.


[media-credit name="Sebastião Salgado photo exhibition Genesis at National Museum of Singapore" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Sebastiao Salgado_web[/media-credit]


Sebastiao Salgado, featured in this TED Talk, is another photographer who highlights disenfranchised communities through photography, creating gorgeous landscape and portrait photos that, upon closer examination, often highlight problems. He has captured some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the world, and some argue that creating beautiful photos of tortuous places can have a negative affect. These critics feel that making beautiful images of human suffering can encourage a sense of voyeurism rather than empathy.

A Christian Science Monitor article about Salgado’s work references a critical essay:

“In an influential 1991 New Yorker essay, Ingrid Sischy wrote of his photographs: ‘[T]his beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize is the fastest way to anesthetize the feeling of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.”

Learn More…

LESSON PLAN: Citizen Photojournalism (Global Oneness Project)
California has the highest poverty rate in the country. A widespread epidemic in the U.S., poverty affects health, access to education, homelessness, unemployment, and food security. This lesson plan examines how the photojournalism of Matt Black captures this reality, and how social media platforms can raise awareness about social issues.

ARTICLE: The Complex Life of ‘California’s Heartland’ On View at SF City Hall (KQED Arts)
This article describing the Valley/El Valle photo exhibit at San Francisco’s City Hall highlights the work of photographers who strive to capture the humanity of California’s Central Valley.

ARTICLE: The Salt of the Earth Does Justice to Sebastiao Salgado’s Life and Art” (The Christian Monitor)
In this film review, the author writes about how Sebastiao Salgado’s photography has captured some of the world’s most remote and tortuous locations, but claims that the film doesn’t really acknowledge the criticism his art has faced.

VIDEO: Collecting Life’s Remnants with Nigel Poor (KQED Art School)
Nigel Poor’s activity ideas about photographing discarded items in your daily travels can help highlight the identity of a community.

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