You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand. —Woodrow Wilson
I never thought I’d have reason to use this picture. It was taken in 2005 as Indianapolis Police were conducting what I would consider an illegal search of my assistant’s car. The entire stop was illegal, but we were standing downtown, at 2:00 in the morning, across from City Hall, with my camera on a tripod. The officer felt like that was sufficient reason to create a scene. I never had any reason to use the photo, though, because, after 30 minutes, he let us go. Never mind the fact that the conceal carry permit for the gun my assistant was carrying had expired. We were all white. They let us go.
This morning, I was up at 2:00 AM again, this time getting ready for the first fashion show in Milan. As I sit at my computer, this is the first picture I see:
— Matthew Robinson (@Robinsonpost) September 21, 2016
Police are in riot gear because, at 2:00 AM, Charlotte, North Carolina is rioting. Charlotte, Noth Carolina is rioting because police saw fit to murder a man who was sitting in his car, waiting on his daughter’s bus. You may have difficulty remembering the name Keith Lamont Scott, but you will remember this photograph.
Photographs don’t change our vision, they create it
That photograph spurred some type of response in you just now. All the photographs surrounding this murder as well as that of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are all you have in establishing your vision of what happened. By the way, we checked and credit for the picture above goes to Adam Rhew at Charlotte magazine. You may not remember Rhew’s name, but you’ll remember his photograph. You may not remember Terrence Crutcher’s name, but you’ll remember that police helicopter photo of him standing in the middle of the road, unarmed and with his hands above his head when he was murdered.
Remember this picture?
Regardless of how you feel about the subject itself, it was the photograph, a still taken from live video feed, that created your vision. This is how you see any number of related topics, from the right to protest, to patriotism, to racism, to football, and any other number of topics that one might choose to associate with the image. Had you not seen this picture, or one similar to it (there are multiple different crops floating around), you would have a concept of the issue, but you wouldn’t have a vision in your mind of how that concept looks.
Our vision, how we see the world, is immensely important. There is very little that we actually get to experience up close and in person. With a lot of news, we don’t want to be up close and in person. If photographers were not present, capturing these issues, giving us a vision where we otherwise would have none, our opinions and responses to these situations might likely be very different. Photographs give us eyes, though, and once we’ve seen pictures like this, we can’t un-see them.
Some Prefer To Be Blind
Strangely enough, not everyone likes having such vision thrust upon them; they’d rather stay blind. When we see pictures like these, we are put in the position of having to create an opinion, take a side, maybe even take a stand. Not everyone is comfortable having to do those things.
Plenty of people prefer that you not have any vision or opinion. The Republican nominee for President became rather upset last week when there was photographic evidence of a supporter punching a woman in the face. The matter was easy enough to deny, sweep under the covers, until video popped up of the assault actually happening. Pictures kept the crime from going away and demanded that the nominee respond. He wasn’t happy and more than once during his campaign he has been disparaging against photographers.
He’s not the only one, though. Around the world, leaders would rather we not take pictures of people starving, living in squalid conditions, existing in sub-par refugee camps, homeless on the street, long lines of unemployed. Politicians prefer the Chamber of Commerce photos that show everything bright, cheery, and perfect for your next visit. They would rather no one see the downside, the number of homicides so far this year, deteriorating road conditions, urban blight, or suburban decay.
Yet, pictures that show what no one likes to see are the photographs that motivate change. With a clear vision, we see what needs to be improved, what and who needs to be replaced, and just maybe how our own attitudes need to change. If photographers are not out there taking those pictures, who knows that there is a problem? Words can only convey so much at their best, and in today’s society, fewer people are actually reading those words. We scan headlines and look at pictures.
Creating A Balanced Vision
Photographers have a lot of power when it comes to creating a vision. We decide where we’re going to be and when we’re going to snap the shutter. If we choose to look away, if we don’t take a picture of a crime being committed, then we are complicit in the very act itself. We have a responsibility to take those shots when we see them.
At the same time, however, we have a responsibility to show more than one side of a situation whenever possible. Creating a false vision is reprehensible and does greater harm than if we’d taken no photograph at all. For all the legitimate reasons there are to photograph protests against police, if that’s the only view of law enforcement we provide we fuel anarchy and greater unrest. We have to find the balance, look for the good, and give it at least an opportunity to make a difference. Pictures of good can be just as powerful as pictures of the bad, but we have to put just as much effort into getting those shots as we do those of unrest.
Our job as photographers is not to be apologists for anyone. Our job is to photograph the truth. All of it. Even the portions we find distasteful, even those elements with which we disagree. We do more than provide a record for future generations. We provide this generation with a vision. The job of the photographer is to make sure that vision is accurate.
And shame on those of us who sit on the sidelines and do nothing.