The Power And Limits Of Photojournalism

Despite all the emphasis on new media, photography has never lost the power to move us. Some recent photo essays in major American magazines, focusing on the poor and dispossessed, are efforts to break through abstraction and indifference. They tell us a lot about the potential impacts -- and common limitations -- of photojournalism.

The March 27 edition of Time devoted six pages to the haunting black-and-white work of renowned photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Bleak images evoke humanity struggling for survival and hope: Rwandans at refugee camps, women holding pictures of men abducted from a Kurdish village in Iraq, toddlers -- abandoned by destitute parents -- crawling at a care center in urban Brazil.

Meanwhile, two other magazines showed that color photos can also be stark. If we don't turn the pages too quickly, the pictures are heart-wrenching. The New York Times Magazine published a March 19 cover story, "In the Shadow of Wealth," featuring photographs of "the invisible poor" from the East Coast to California. And the March issue of Life offered 10 vivid photos of Americans living in poverty, from Manhattan to rural areas of the Northeast, South and West.

The companion articles varied. The Times magazine examined how the impoverished live outside the line-of-sight of affluent America. ("Our poor are like people in Madagascar," writes James Fallows. "We feel bad for them, but they live someplace else.") The story with Life's photos, titled "The Uncounted," explored how 10 million Americans are likely to be missed by the U.S. Census this year -- "men, women and children already on the low end of an uneven playing field."

These photos are reminiscent of Dorothea Lange, whose Depression-era pictures of gaunt Americans endure as great photographic art. Transcending the historic moment, they resonate in the midst of today's extreme inequities.

By themselves, empathetic photos say plenty about what has happened. Yet context is not automatic. The photographs provide glimpses of human realities. We still need to learn more.

The Time magazine spread included two gripping photos of refugees from Rwanda, but did not mention the U.N. Security Council's refusal to send in peacekeeping troops to prevent the imminent mass slaughter in April 1994. There was a photo of Kurdish women made bereft by the savagery of U.S.-enemy Iraq, but no photo of Kurdish women made bereft by the savagery of U.S.-ally Turkey.

Salgado's picture of forsaken little children, with the modern Sao Paulo skyline behind them, is brilliant. The brief text underneath it noted that in the Third World "farmers have been displaced by the transformation of family agriculture into corporate agribusiness." There was a passing reference to "the failure of policy and the market." Yet the context afforded the photos was paltry. Readers might only guess at how the insatiable amassing of wealth correlates to such destitution.

In the New York Times Magazine -- right after the end of the essay accompanying pictures of poor people -- readers found a full-page ad showcasing a very different sort of photo. An opulent jewel dangled from a woman's neck, while big letters proclaimed: "FEAR OF LOSING should back off and let JOY OF HAVING go about its business."

On the same day, similar messages pervaded Part 2 of the magazine -- "Men's Fashions of the Times" -- 108 pages of articles and advertisements largely devoted to the theme announced on the cover: "We're so vain."

"Once the exclusive terrain of women, vanity now belongs to any man with a pulse," declared the headline over the keynote piece by the magazine's editor. "To be vain can be glorious." Consciously or not, the tag line echoed a famous proclamation by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who gained power in the late 1970s and soon warmed the hearts of elites everywhere with a new Beijing motto: "To get rich is glorious."

Looking at American mass media, how do we reconcile the occasional tugs at heartstrings and compassion with the ongoing appeals to vanity and acquisitiveness? Analysts say that visual images, in print and on screen, routinely overpower any words. Certainly the dominant images keep prodding, needling and imploring us to want -- and figure out how to get -- more, more, more.

Once in a while, in the media world, the eyes of the poor are peering at us, captured through a photographer's lens. We can see them. But do we really see them?

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