Social Trends Institute

The Thousand Words behind a Picture

Photographs are powerful storytellers. But what stories do they tell? In the image-heavy modern environment, it’s ever more important to choose photographs’ proverbial ‘thousand words’ carefully.

A single picture of a child’s body washed ashore in Turkish Bodrum during the autumn of 2015 impacted millions of people and arguably forced governments to take action on the Syrian refugee crisis. The spread and effect of the visual evidence of Alan Kurdi’s tragic death illustrates the potential or perceived power of photography. Indeed, photographic images have come to play a significant role in forming and shaping the way in which human beings perceive, understand and act in the world.

In an age when media often privileges image over text, we are constantly being exposed to photographs of graphic violence, conflict and war. There is today an extensive scholarly discussion surrounding such war photography. Yet photographs have not only been vital in depicting and in some cases fomenting conflict, but have also played a part in creating, sustaining and rebuilding civil society. Despite this, there has been little academic reflection to date on photographers’ participation in peace processes and peace building. The STI co-sponsored (with CTPI and GJA at the University of Edinburgh) workshop ‘Visualizing Peace: Photography, Conflict Transformation and Peace building’ recently gathered practitioners and academics at the University of Edinburgh to address this omission and to highlight the important contribution of peace photography.

The interdisciplinary workshop began with a stimulating master class led by three photographers experienced in capturing post-conflict societies. Each speaker approached the topic of peace from a different perspective. The first, Paul Lowe discussed his involvement in the Balkan exhibition project ‘Picturing Moral Courage: The Rescuers.’ The project exhibited portraits and stories of people of ‘moral courage’ who, in situations of extreme violence and genocide, had risked their own lives to rescue others from enemy tribes or communities. It sought to create empathy and highlight human acts in times of conflict. Lowe’s portraits capture the emotional moment of reunion between rescuer and rescued. The rescuers were advanced as role models and powerful examples to be admired and imitated in post-conflict societies.

Martina Bacigalup, the second speaker, has been working as an independent photojournalist in Central East Africa for more than a decade. She spoke of the point at which she realized that she was producing images that perpetuated Western discourses of Africa as a continent of violence, poverty and suffering. She shared recent examples of her work, through which she has set out to create photos that more truthfully represent everyday life in these societies.

Finally, Colin Cavers introduced his work with the Global Justice Academy’s (University of Edinburgh) annual photo competition. Critical of the binary stereotypes often present in protest photography, Cavers showcased a number of images from past competitions that seek to subvert these. After the class, participants considered images that they felt represented peace or peace building, prompting discussion on the nature and definition of peace.

These examples of ‘photographies of peace’ set the stage for the plenary sessions and discussions. There were 13 presentations, mostly consisting of case studies of the historical and contemporary uses of photography in relation to peace building. These will contribute towards a volume of essays providing different perspectives on the topic. The presentations’ themes ranged from artistic representations of the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, historical perspectives on citizenship journalism, studies on the visual depictions of women’s peace protests against nuclear weapons, the bearing of Greek tragedy on peace photography, images of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and the economic and political context of image production, among others.

Inevitably, several of the discussions centered around the use of language and terminology. In these discussions about photography, the evasiveness of the term ‘peace’ kept resurfacing. What level of reconciliation is required for a society to be peaceful? How far does peace demand justice and if so, does justice demand truth?

There was also much discussion of what constitutes ‘peace photography’. Is, for example, the image of the forceful removal of women during a protest against nuclear weapons at Greenham a peace photograph? What about UN peacekeeping forces patrolling an African village? This issue is further complicated by the fact that photographs require a level of interpretation by the viewer, not least because they are often emotive. Thus, whilst photographs can be mobilized as imaginative symbols of peace, they also hold the capacity to further heighten tensions and perpetuate violence. Some of images displayed during the workshop had in fact been used for any number of political ends and purposes. The framing of images, mainly through captions, has a significant effect on how they are received and interpreted.

The power dynamics involved in the politics of visual representation were also debated. Who is taking the photograph, for what purposes and with what ‘gaze’? What economic interests lie behind the photograph? Is the photograph implicitly or explicitly perpetuating Western discourses on the global south? Such discussions inevitably led to questions concerning journalistic objectivity, truth and normativity.

Finally, the discussion turned to the main question of collaboration. What is the relation between photography and peace? While photo journalists have for decades worked to make conflicts, acts of violence and atrocities visible, these exposures have not necessarily led to peaceable actions. The world continues to be ravaged by violent conflicts despite the best peace building efforts. Ultimately, it might be difficult empirically to measure the potential impact of photography on conflict-transformation and peace building. Nevertheless, while the causal relation between photography and peace cannot be quantified, it is worth reflecting on what the world would look like without the contribution of photographers. In the words of the playwright Samuel Beckett, ‘Something is taking its cause.’

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