Wednesday, 29 June 2011

[] The power of the photographic image

By Gorden Vester

It's perhaps one of the most overused clichs ever, but it's hard to deny that in some cases a picture really is worth a thousand words. Artistic photography can is a fascinating use of the medium. However, documentary photography is probably the purest and most powerful form. It has the ability to highlight injustice or suffering, but it can also give people hope.

Often, when photographers find themselves in warzones or at scenes of natural disasters, they are thrown into a challenging moral predicament. Their journalistic instinct is to document what they see and bring it to the attention of the wider world, but this often means they are watching terrible things happen and not intervening to prevent the suffering they witness. At the same time, photographers often put their own lives on the line, and many have paid the ultimate price in their efforts to get to the centre of the action.

The photo that perhaps best encapsulates the moral dilemmas faced by journalists, whilst also conveying the risks they take, was taken by Nick Ut in Vietnam in 1972. It depicts a group of Vietnamese children fleeing a US napalm attack, with a naked, screaming girl named Kim Phuc at the centre of the image. The photo made a global impact, graphically illustrating the suffering being caused at the hands of the American military, and further galvanizing the anti-war movement.

World-changing photos aren't only taken by journalists. In 1941, an SS soldier captured an image now known as The Last Jew of Vinnista. Discovered in one of his personal albums after the war, this sickening image shows a gaunt Jewish man sat on the edge of a pit of dead bodies, with a guard stood behind him with a gun to his head. All 28,000 Ukranian Jews from the city of Vinnista were killed during WWII.

Photos like these get their power from their uncompromising portrayal of humanity at its worst, but there also are many images celebrating human achievements that deserve an equal place in history. One example, taken whilst under enemy fire, is US Marine photographer Joe Rosenthal's unforgettable shot of four American soldiers courageously raising the American flag on Mount Surbachi, Japan, as WWII approached its conclusion. Another photo that beautifully symbolises the human spirit at its best is Buzz Aldrin's 1969 shot of the first human footprint on the Moon. The footprint, which poignantly encapsulates our instinctive fascination with the unknown, will remain there for millions of years.

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