We live in a time of not just change but Perpetual Revolution, and there’s nothing more powerful than the right image to drive — or stifle — social change.
That’s the premise of the International Center of Photography’s latest exhibit, the first in its Year of Change series looking at visual media’s impact on the world, using both iconic images like NASA’s “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo astronauts and newly impactful images from the Black Lives Matter movement, along with videos, magazines and even real-time social media feeds.
If the range of media sounds impressive, it’s because the exhibit doesn’t just cover one topic. There are six areas of focus: Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered, The Fluidity of Gender, Climate Changes, Propaganda and the Islamic State, The Flood: Refugees and Representation, and a late addition to the show, The Right-Wing Fringe and the 2016 Election.
“The curators felt that those case studies would serve as interlocking, yet different ways of seeing how the networked image was affecting social change,” explains ICP head of exhibitions and collections Erin Barnett. Going beyond still photos was necessary to remain relevant in a world of memes and Facebook Live. “We had to rethink how people were using images, taking images and sharing images.”
The idea of images as indisputable evidence is no longer necessarily true either — and it’s not just because of Photoshop. We talked to Barnett about why what you’re seeing may not be the whole story.
When images hurt
Images of desperate migrants coming across water have been part of the dialogue about immigration since World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who couldn’t return home sought a new life elsewhere. Often, including in the U.S., they faced the same rejection as the refugees now fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
“You look at some of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of the recent refugee crisis and you see the same visualization of massive amounts of people,” says Barnett. “We thought it was important to show it had happened in the past and is continuing to happen now.”
The problem with these images is they gave rise to phrases like “the flood of migrants” or “the tide of refugees” — it’s not hard to see how the problematic association with natural disasters could inspire anti-immigrant sentiment.