A Force for Change?

French sociologist Émile Durkheim first used the phrase “collective consciousness” to refer to the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which act as a force of unification within society.

Nachtwey informs us that “when an image enters our collective consciousness, change becomes possible and inevitable” (Nachtwey in Ritchin, 2013, p.74), whilst Frith writes that: ‘Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).

Here then, Nachtwey is clearly in agreement with Frith in believing that there has to be a link between the “collective consciousness”, or system of shared values, and the images we see before any change is effected by those images.

Whilst not all images are propaganda, it would appear that Hitler clearly had an understanding of the fundamental way in which mass media must operate within society in order to be effective: ‘propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed’ (Hitler, 1925).

Fundamentally, images work in the same way irrespective of whether they are documentary shots informing us of wars or disasters in faraway lands, or images promoting the latest “must have” – images need to tug on our emotional strings, they need to appeal to our sense of what is right and what is wrong in some way (either positively or negatively), they need to create a desire in us to act in a specific way: to go out and change the world, or make a new purchase.

Images of the war in Vietnam placed the American public much closer to the front line than many were comfortable with, images such as Ronald L. Haeberle’s “And babies” taken in the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre in 1968.


 Ronald L. Haeberle, 1968. And Babies

Outrage at such atrocities, viewed by the American public from the safety of their homes, proved to be a catalyst for the withdrawal of American forces from the conflict. This is, therefore, a clear example of photography influencing change.

There is an obvious case for filtering sexually orientated material away from mainstream viewing and especially away from minors, but is there a case for the censorship of “shocking” material?

No, I don’t think there is. We all live in one world, and the events that happen in that world are not always pleasant, but they are real, as are the people who experience these events. I think we have a duty to ourselves and to society to be informed as to the events taking place in our world – it is only when we are aware of disaster or injustice that we can bring about change. Ignorance does not put food into the mouths of starving children in Africa – only by being aware of the plight of others can we target those that need our help. I wonder if those who propose censorship enjoy life in their little sanitised “bubbles” of existence?

Ignorance is bliss? Or does ignorance breed ignorance?

This is perhaps something to which Sontag alludes when she writes ‘shock can become familiar, shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t one cannot not look. People have a means to defend themselves against what is upsetting, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images’ (Sontag, 2003, p. 73).

Sturken and Cartwright would appear to agree with my view when they write ‘the enhanced circulation of images, even ones as troubling as these, play a key role in exposing injustice around the world, even when the making and circulation of the images can be bound up in that injustice’ (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p. 259).

So, do we become desensitised to and by the images that we see?

Szarkowski suggests that ‘after a while people get inured to the suffering in the photograph and that is not good for anyone. In that sense, each successive image has less impact than the one that came before it’ (Szarkowski in Carr, 2003).

Gardner also informs us that ‘if the same message and same tactics are being used all the time, then it just becomes wallpaper to a person and makes it far easier to ignore’ (Gardner in Williams, 2009).

Really? Honestly?

These are sentiments that I cannot wholly agree with.

Look at this image of a starving Ethiopian child taken during the 1984 famine. It is an iconic image, widely regarded as summing up the suffering of millions at that time. Can anyone look at this and tell me they don’t find it as harrowing now as they did then? Like a sticking plaster ripped off an unhealed wound, this image allows the “blood” of emotional memories to pour forth … …


Untitled (BBC News, 1984)

Ingrid Sischy is very scathing of an aesthetic approach to documentary images, saying that ‘to aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (Sischy, 1991, p. 22). This raises an interesting question, if a particular aesthetic is applied to a documentary photograph, is that in itself a form of censorship?

I think integrity is extremely important in relation to photojournalism. We expect our news to be unbiased and factual. The integrity of photojournalism is brought into question when images which are “constructed” are held out as being truthful depictions of events.

These topics are highly relevant to my project, the aim of which is produce a body of photographic work which not only has a painterly aesthetic reminiscent of the old Dutch masters, but which also provides a narrative on the social issues associated with our relationship with food.

The images I produce will have an element of “construction”, the mise en scene will be staged in order to tell a story. Doing this in a way which gives the story credibility, which convinces the viewer to question the way we produce and consume our food, and the implications of the way in which we do so will require some balancing.



Carr, David (2003) ‘A Nation at War: Bringing Combat Home: Telling war’s deadly story at just enough distance in The New York Times (7th April 2003) [Online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/07/business/nation-war-bringing-combat-home-telling-war-s-deadly-story-just-enough-distance.html (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Hitler, Adolf (1925) Mein Kampf [Online]. Available at: http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/mkv1ch06.html (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

Ritchin, Fred (2013) Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary & the Citizen. New York: Aperture

Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991)

Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin

Sturken, Marita & Cartwright, Lisa (2009) Practices of Looking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, Matt ‘Does Shock Advertising Still Work’ in Campaign (24th April 2009) [Online]. Available at: http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/close-up-does-shock-advertising-work/900778 (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)


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