A single shocking photograph can sway public opinion like nothing else.
A Buddhist monk calmly burning himself to death to protest the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.
A 9-year-old girl, running naked and screaming in pain after a fiery napalm attack on her village.
A stiff-armed South Vietnamese police chief about to shoot a bound Viet Cong prisoner in the head.
A 14-year-old screaming in agony as she kneels over a college student’s body, shot dead by a volley of gunfire from National Guardsmen.
These images are indelibly etched into our collective imagination. During the Vietnam era, a handful of photographs revealed the cruelty, inhumanity and perversity of the war.
In Iraq, a single indelible image—of a detainee standing atop a cardboard box, with a hood on his head and electrical wires extending from his hands—with its eerie resemblance to Christ on the cross, encapsulates the horror of the “enhanced interrogations” conducted by the U.S. government at Abu Ghraib prison.
We live in an image-saturated world. According to some estimates, the average American sees some 50,000 images every day. Indeed, most Americans see more images in a day than the number of words they read. Yet while every student is taught to read critically, few learn how to analyze photographic images.
A single photographic image has the power to alter the course of history and indelibly shape the way we visualize the past. The bodies of dozens of Confederate soldiers awaiting burial at Antietam. The migrant mother, brow furrowed, a baby wrapped in a sheet of coarse cloth on her lap, while two shabbily dressed older children stand at her side, faces hidden. A U.S. flag raised atop Mount Suribachi. Black children, protesting segregation, attacked by police dogs and blasts of water from fire hoses. In our mind’s eye, this is what the past looks like.
We are constantly told that our students are the most visually savvy generation in history. And there can be no doubt that they have been raised on visual images and take cellphone photos regularly. But most of my students are visually illiterate: they have no idea how to read or interpret a photograph. Many assume that photographs are literal, scientifically accurate copies of the external world.
It is a sad fact that most of our students lack the tools and language to deconstruct photographic images. We need to do more to teach visual literacy and to help our students understand that photographs are rich cultural texts suffused with meaning that have played a crucial role in shaping our perception of the past and presenting life in the present.
Oliver Wendell Holmes called the camera “the mirror with a memory.” He assumed, like many students do, that a snapshot is an accurate, totally objective reproduction of a moment in time.
This view is, of course, completely wrong. A photograph is a selective recording of a visual scene. Even a photojournalist is an artist and interpreter.
What the camera sees is shaped by the photographer who determines how a particular picture is composed, framed and cropped. Our students need to learn photography’s grammar: angle, balance, flatness and depth of field, focus, lighting, texture, and tone. They must also learn photography’s ideological functions: how an image might reflect the male gaze or how a casual family snapshot might screen out as much as it screens in.
Frederick Douglass, the celebrated fugitive slave and abolitionist and the single most photographed American of the 19th century, understood, as John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier have shown, the explosive power of portraiture to deconstruct racist imagery and lay bare slavery’s true horror.
Martha Sandweiss reveals how 19th-century photographs of the Old West didn’t just record that region’s way of life; these images played a critical role in constructing the mythic West of the imagination that bore only a scant resemblance to the actual Western frontier.
In his classic 1989 volume, Reading American Photographs, the great American studies scholar Alan Trachtenberg showed how photography shaped this country’s collective reality, giving expression to the nation’s mythologies, its ethos and its social and cultural identity. Yet he also revealed how photography served as this nation’s most powerful instrument of social reform. In the hands of photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, socially conscious documentary photographs provoked shock and indignation, awoke empathy and raised the public’s consciousness in ways that words couldn’t.
Yet photojournalists, photographic documentarians and activist photographers co-existed with another current in photography: the photographer as artist. Alfred Stieglitz, the early-20th-century champion of nonrepresentational modern art, was his era’s the most vocal advocate for photography as a form of artistic expression. Still, there was, of course, a danger, evident in his own photographs, with their misty landscapes and sentimental imagery, that art photography would succumb to the picturesque, the romantic and the mawkish.
But in the hands of this country’s greatest photographic artists—Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gordon Parks, Man Ray, Cindy Sherman and Edward Steichen, among others—photography became a form of art that went far beyond documentary photography, commercial photography or art or beauty photography.
Their works combined visual acuity and personal vision and addressed key issues in the American experience involving class, family, gender, mortality, race and racism and the legacies of this nation’s troubled, tumultuous history.
Several years ago, I had the great pleasure and honor of helping to bring Sally Mann, the pre-eminent photographer of my generation (along with Sally Gall, Vicki Goldberg, Cig Harvey, John Stauffer, Anne Wilkes Tucker and John Wood), to campus. This was just before Mann published her memoir Hold Still, and her talk, like her photographs, represented her attempt to come to terms with her complex personal history: her death-obsessed dad, a country doctor; the apparent murder-suicide of her husband’s parents; her children; her family’s Black housekeeper, cook and caregiver; the motley crew of miscreants who are her relatives and ancestors; and her experience growing up in the South with its haunted, cruel, bloodstained history.
A poet in words as well as images, Mann, “the Faulkner of photography’s southern milieu,” reflected deeply and self-critically upon her creative process, her aesthetic choices, her provocations, her understanding of photography as a craft and a science and the varied reception her art has received. In one of her many powerful insights, she spoke about a photograph’s ability to supersede pre-existing memories.
She, who is best known for her provocative images of her children, sometimes naked, also wrestled with a central ethical issue with this art form: given that photography is almost inevitably intrusive and intimate, how can a photographer respect a subject’s dignity and privacy?
At a time when so many of our students have become amateur photographers who regularly document their lives with images posted on TikTok and Instagram, doesn’t it make sense to do much more to introduce them to the history of photography, to photography as a form of artistic expression and as an instrument of cultural criticism and social analysis and to photography as a vehicle for self-understanding?
Just as text generators threaten to truncate the writing process, digital photography has already simplified image creation and editing—eliminating part of photography’s artistry. Since we no longer go through the process of developing a photograph in a darkroom—making a contact print of a negative, immersing the photographic paper into a chemical bath and fixing and drying the image—it has become easy to forget that a photograph is a construction, a composition and a collection of choices.
Sure, Photoshop allows us to meticulously manipulate an image, but most of this process can be done automatically without much conscious intervention. Just, I guess, as some students will use ChatGPT to write their papers.
Part of the purpose of a higher education is to make our students more self-conscious, mindful, reflective and intentional. A recent essay included words that all academics should take to heart: “When it comes to our complicated, undecipherable feelings, art prompts a self-understanding far beyond the wellness industry.”
That essay begins with Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and how the great Romantic poet “chooses not to seek an understanding of the urn in front of him through research or historical data; instead, he … asks question after question about the urn, not to uncover facts or ‘answers’, but rather to sustain his experience of wonder and curiosity.”
We inhabit a culture that considers it rude to stare. But photography quite purposely turns viewers into voyeurs. We gape, gaze and glower obsessively, whether the subject is sordid or pornographic, attractive or repellent. We look open-eyed and unflinchingly at every unvarnished detail—seeking some epiphany or insight.
We need to teach our students the art of looking: to look unstintingly, to interpret imaginatively, to question, interrogate and critique. But more than that, we need to show them how to grapple with complex, ambiguous visual images.
The “facile promise” of self-help literature is that it will enhance self-awareness; relieve anxiety, depression or trauma; and make us more effective in expressing our emotions and opinions. Yet I would argue that contemplating an artwork can do that and more. We need “more open-ended forms of understanding and reflection—self-help beyond the self.” That’s what we get when we mull over an iconic photograph.
Throughout this society’s history, many Americans have been uneasy with visual images, traceable, I suspect, to the Puritan taboo about graven images, icons and mirrors, reinforced, more recently, by the well-placed criticism of ogling and eyeballing. Historically, ours was a culture of words, not images.
Mass culture, especially the movies, challenged that tradition. Silent movies, in particular, are notable for their pictorialism: their scene’s incredible beauty, complexity of composition, artistry and tonality. When the movies turned to sound, that intricate pictorialism largely faded away.
Aparna Chivukula, who teaches at Bangalore’s Mount Carmel College, wrote this:
“Art has the power to hold our attention, draw us away from ourselves and keep us looking closely at something we don’t entirely understand. Learning to explore something unfamiliar and ambiguous, by wielding our imagination and curiosity, is like developing a kind of muscle, which could prove useful to other aspects of our lives.”
Her point is that in addition to teaching the observational and the analytic—to pay “attention to the attention to the form, title and other perceptible ‘clues’ in the work”—we should also teach our students how to engage in a personal dialogue with a creative work; to make associations, reflect on a work’s subjective meaning and impact, linger over its ambiguities and take part in what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls “patient reading”: suspending one’s self and seeking to understand the creative work on its own terms and build critical yet open empathy with something that lie beyond and outside us.
Colleges have an unmatched opportunity to teach our students the art of looking, of listening, of reading. Let’s not squander that possibility.