Since its invention in the 19th century, photography has captured history. Hearing about injustice is one thing. Seeing it through a photograph is another. Even if the event took place decades ago, a photo brings it to life. Here are five memorable social photos and an insight into the ethics of this kind of photography:
In 1967, photojournalist Bernie Boston arrived at an antiwar protest at the Pentagon. It was late October and thousands of demonstrators marched in protest of the Vietnam War. Boston sat on a wall at the Mall Entrance, watching as soldiers surrounded the group. Guns drawn, the scene was tense. A man with a mop of fair hair and a sweater stuck carnation blooms into the rifle barrels. Boston snapped the photo. When he presented it to his editor, the photo ended up hidden deep in the newspaper. It didn’t receive attention until the photo began winning photography competitions. It was nominated for the 1967 Pulitzer Prize. Who was the young man in the photo, whose image became a symbol of the “Flower Power” movement? He’s most commonly identified as George Harris, an actor who went by the stage name “Hibiscus.” He died in the early 1980s.
This photo, which is now housed safely in the Library of Congress, shows Rosa Parks sitting at the front of a bus. What many may not know is that this photo is staged and was taken after the bus system integrated. The man behind her, Nicholas C. Chriss, is not an irritated racist, but rather a journalist for United Press International covering the event. He later described his excitement at being assigned the story, but Rosa Parks wasn’t talkative. Chriss believed she wanted to “savor the event alone.” Because many people aren’t aware of the context of the photo, we imagine it took place on the day Rosa Parks defied segregation and was arrested. While that may not be accurate, it does represent Mrs. Parks’ spirit.
The day after the Chinese government cracked down on the Tiananmen protests, which called for accountability and democracy, tanks rumbled down the street. A man stood in the way, blocking the tanks. He wore a white shirt and blank pants, his arms weighed down by two shopping bags. As the tanks tried to drive around him, he kept stepping in front. Video footage showed the man eventually pulled away. His identity remains unclear. About a half-mile from the scene, photographer Jeff Widener of the Associated Press snapped a photo from his sixth-floor balcony. It became one of history’s most iconic photos and a vivid representation of nonviolent protest.
In 2019, hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong began marching. They were originally protesting a bill that allowed China to extradite Hong Kong residents for trial, but it soon grew to encompass long-held anger and anxiety surrounding China’s control of the semi-autonomous region. The Reuters photography team was on the ground for months of protests, capturing images of riot police, huge crowds, and protesters fighting back with slingshots, flashlights, and other methods. One especially striking image by Leah Millis shows a lit sign reading “Free Hong Kong” on the peak of Lion Rock at night, the bright city beneath them. The photography team won the Pulitzer Prize for “Breaking News Photography.”
In 2016, police shot Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Protests began around the country, including Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Sterling had been killed. Ieshia Evans, a nurse, traveled from Pennsylvania to participate in her first protest. She wore a flowing black and silver dress with black shoes. The photo, taken by Reuters photographer Jonathon Bachman, shows Evans standing tall, perfectly calm, as two riot officers charge forward to handcuff her. The photo went viral and many compared it to “Tank Man.” It’s one of the most circulated photos of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The ethics of social justice photography
Photography is a tool for social justice, but it has a dark side. The ethics are complicated and often ignored. Take 1936’s “Migrant Mother” as an example. This photo by Dorothea Lange is one of the world’s most famous photographs. It’s become the symbol of the Great Depression. However, decades later, the photograph’s unnamed subject – Florence Thompson Owens – was finally identified. She wished Lange hadn’t taken her photo. She said the photographer had promised not to sell the pictures and that she would send her a copy, but she never did. While Owens’ face was world-famous, the woman herself got nothing for the photo. When she became ill in her later years, her family collected donations and more than 2,000 letters of people expressing how her photo had moved them. Her son Troy said: “For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of a curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”
This is far from the only example of how complicated the ethics of social justice photography are. Nuanced discussion helps social justice photographers and photo viewers grapple with the fact that nothing is ever simple. When you look at a photo depicting poverty, oppression, or human suffering, it’s important to ask questions. Is this an ethical or exploitative representation? Who benefits from this? And what happens next?