Start Taking Photographs That Can Change the World

At the International Center of Photography, a new show, "Perpetual Revolution," demonstrates how the images we look at can change how we think.

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The International Center of Photography has designated 2017 "The Year of Social Change." Looking back, when it comes to image-making, how would you characterize 2016?

Erin Barnett, director of exhibitions and collections: All of 2017's exhibitions will explore how photography and visual culture impacts and changes society. "Perpetual Revolution" focuses on how images shared on online platforms can define and disseminate information about important issues.

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It's impossible to characterize image-making in 2016, partially because it is impossible to define image-makers. People may not consider themselves photographers, but they are taking pictures of themselves and their everyday lives, as well as historic political and social events, and sharing them with audiences online.

"Increasingly, people are using photographs to represent themselves and their communities. This can be a radical act of empowerment." – Erin Barnett

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Many of these images counter mainstream narratives about various issues; increasingly, people are using photographs to represent themselves and their communities. This can be a radical act of empowerment, either for gender fluid individuals, refugees, or ISIS jihadis.

"It is impossible to comprehend the vast scope of images being created… and how it is shaping personal identities as well as larger societal narratives."

There are thousands of cameraphone images uploaded every minute to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, even as "traditional" photojournalists continue to have their work published in newspapers and magazines as well as on online platforms. More than ever, it is impossible to comprehend the vast scope of images being created by professional photojournalists, artists, and amateurs and how it is shaping personal identities as well as larger societal narratives.

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How did you conceive of "social change" in this exhibition? I would imagine photographs that show Black Lives Matter protests or that document the effects of climate change are meant to serve as some kind of call to action. But what about an image of an ISIS soldier handing out school supplies—is that propaganda? Are the right-wing memes propaganda, too?

Carol Squiers, curator: We mean change both positive and negative. Anyone now has access to a powerful publication system in the Internet with which to share a variety of messages. Many of them would be considered to be negative by intelligent and progressive people. An example would be climate change deniers: If you believe that scientists have identified human causes for climate change, you couldn't be a denier. Another would be in disseminating violent images and messages.

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The title of the section on ISIS is "Propaganda and the Islamic State." It is a look at the ways in which ISIS wants to appeal to followers by fashioning images of its concern for children, its well-equipped and well-staffed hospitals, its emergency services. What we see of ISIS propaganda is a small percentage of what the group produces.

"The Internet brings us news of these changes while it is also pumping out flows of 'information' that are instrumental in causing the changes." – Carol Squiers

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They are promising their followers a new society built on principles they claim a religious basis for. And they have caused massive social change, not only in the places where they are killing and displacing people, but also where refugees have fled to save their lives. The internet brings us news of these changes, while it is also pumping out flows of "information" that are instrumental in causing the changes.

What lengths did some of these photographers have to go to in order to make these images?

Squiers: Photographers who report from battle zones are often in extreme danger. Two of the videos in the exhibition feature John Cantlie, a British photojournalist who was captured in 2012 (before ISIS technically existed), and is now in the hands of the Islamic State. He had been traveling with James Foley, the American photojournalist who was killed by ISIS. Cantlie opted to save his life by making videos for his kidnappers. ISIS also recruits photographers and videographers to join them—there is a recruitment video of this kind in the show. Those photographers also go to the front lines to capture propaganda images of ISIS's successes.

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There were certain types of images I expected to see (an ice shelf in Antarctica, refugees making landfall), and others that I didn't (Pepe the Frog memes, ISIS handing out school supplies). What expectations about photography, social media, and social change do you hope the show will complicate for viewers?

Squiers: We must look at how photography, because it can be distributed to a wide audience by virtually anyone using the same channels of communication, can be successfully used to create violence, inequality, and other forms of injustice.

But in the gender section we also look at how the internet has allowed people who had formerly been isolated in their sense of queerness (in the broadest sense) have found like-minded people online. Facebook showed how important a component of social media that was when it added 56 new gender categories to its profile page in 2014, but the internet has been crucial to queer communities for years.

I noticed that the exhibition only recently added memes created by the alt-right.

Carol Squiers: Those were added right after the election. In part, it is a response to questions that came up within the ICP community: How did this happen? What is the alt-right? It's a look into the kind of imagery and messages that were generated by what many considered a fringe movement that for now has been mainstreamed.

"Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change" is up from January 27–May 7 at the ICP Museum in New York City. For more on this exhibit, visit icp.org.

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