Can Photography Save the World?

Industry Perspective

Can Photography Save the World?

by Ron Leach

Ten years ago PBS debuted a moving documentary entitled “American Photography: A Century of Images.” The program traced photography’s profound influence upon life in America, and I recall being particularly struck by the camera’s potential for social change.

Throughout our history the power of the image has served as a beacon to win support for social causes. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis used photography to illustrate the plight of those living in slums and arouse the conscience of those more fortunate. Similarly, Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor were motivated by his belief that images could provide “a lever for the social uplift.”

In the 1930s, photographers working for the Farm Security Administration were given the assignment of documenting the struggles of the rural poor during the depression, and there are numerous other examples of images being used to rally public support for governmental programs and charitable agencies.

Today, images continue to rouse the complacent for social causes like the environment, poverty, homelessness, aids and natural disasters. It was impossible to ignore the plight of those affected by hurricane Katrina, for example, in the face of so many compelling images of the disaster. Similarly, photojournalists are now using their passion and skill to document the horrific calamity in Haiti, in the hope that their documentary evidence will motivate thoughtful people everywhere to respond.

PBS is no longer broadcasting “American Photography: A Century of Images,” but the video and book are available for purchase at