It’s in this climate that photographs, long championed for their ability to transcend language, find their greatest power. Where words can be twisted, fact-checks dismissed, and lies perpetuated, photographs can sear an image into public consciousness that leaves little room to dispute. The responsibility of the media as defenders of democracy has never been so urgent. And within the media, photojournalists, with their incredibly strict code of ethics
(a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer was banned from the agency for life after it was revealed a stray camera had been photoshopped out for a shrub in one of his pictures), have a distinct and important ability to indisputably represent the truth.
Time and again we’ve seen photographs change the world—when we’re confronted with truths not through statistics, but with visual proof. In 1936, ’s
photograph of a forlorn and starving 32-year-old woman at a pea picker’s camp in California (the now infamous Migrant Mother)
humanized the Great Depression. The worry lines on her face—she was living inside a tent, her family eating birds killed by her children and scant frozen vegetables—struck the world. In response, the government rushed some 20,000 pounds of food to the camp.
Eddie Adams’s 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese general shooting a man in the temple, capturing the very moment the bullet entered his head, became a symbol fueling the anti-war movement that some say helped put an end to the war. (It should be noted, though, that the man wasn’t innocent; he was an assassin who had led a Viet Cong death squad. Like words, images used out of context can dangerously distort the truth.) It was not enough to read about these tragedies. Those pictures changed public opinion and mobilized communities.
As the integrity of journalists continues to be called into question, images of visceral power, ones which present unquestionable truths, will play an increasingly important role in not just accompanying a story but serving as the document that allows it to resist being summarily rejected with a buzzword. To effectively operate under “the great respect for freedom of the press and all of that” held by our president-elect, the media must up its standards. (Despite its phenomenal reporting over recent years, Buzzfeed’s choice to publish an unverified dossier
of the “Kompromat” did the news media no favors in this uphill battle.) Whenever possible, unimpeachable photo and video evidence of facts reported will be essential.