Photography As Activism

Photography can engage an audience immediately, it doesn’t need time and effort from the viewer. It can pull them in to an issue in a nano-second and plant a seed of interest or empathy that no other medium can generate in such a small space of time; often without the viewer being aware of it. It can take a complicated subject and create a connection that leads to deeper exploration. It is incredibly powerful and, in my opinion, it needs to be used responsibly. 

Sekhobe Letsie from 'The Price of Gold' - 2015

Sekhobe Letsie from 'The Price of Gold' - 2015

Much of my work is about humanitarian and environmental issues and some of it I would describe as activism. I like to work with organisations that are advocating for change - it gives the photographic project a real focus and usually an end point to be constructed around. 

Activism isn't just about showing a problem, it’s about engaging the right audience and giving them a way to get involved. It’s about applying pressure to the people who have the power, to make changes by exposing injustice and broadening the size of the audience that feels passionately about it. We do this by creating relevant, compelling imagery; combining it with carefully constructed text and placing it in the right publications.

Over the years I have developed a starting point for creating effective photographic projects, several critical questions to discuss with the commissioning and partner organisations before we start. These questions are integral to the efficacy of the project and often reveal surprising gaps in their initial advocacy plan. 


1. Who is your target audience? (Hint: it can’t be everybody, that doesn't help us)

Who do you need to see this work? Why do they need to see it? 

Where are they? What language do they speak?

What do they read? What websites do they visit? Who do they follow on social media?

What power do they have? Who are their leaders? 

All of this will help with how we shoot the project and how we place the project once it is finished. It leads us to answers about which websites we pitch the story to,  which newspapers we want to run it and who we want to repost it on social media. It’s also important to know which countries it needs to be seen in.

Khanyisile Ndovela - from the series 'Postcards from xolobeni', 2018

Khanyisile Ndovela - from the series 'Postcards from xolobeni', 2018

My project Postcards from Xolobeni is about an Australian mining company trying to exploit possibilities in South Africa. Whilst it is good to raise awareness in South Africa, it makes sense that a critical audience is in Australia, where the company is based. It is one thing to ignore the protests of people in a country thousands of miles away, with a culture that you neither care about or relate to. It is much harder to ignore a vocal opposition on your own doorstep. 

2. What do you want them to know?

What facts do you need your audience to know? Are they visual? Is the data complicated?

What do we need to show in the images to convey the problem in a clear, understandable way?

What do they need to know that we cannot tell them through a photograph? 

How are we going to communicate this non-visual information? (Text, infographics, voiceover etc.)

Mncedisi Dlisani with his wife Nokwakha and thier daughter Sisipho - 'The Price of Gold', 2015

Mncedisi Dlisani with his wife Nokwakha and thier daughter Sisipho - 'The Price of Gold', 2015

There is a reason why subjects such as famine, HIV/AIDS and poverty have been documented extensively in images; they are often visual and can make for compelling imagery. We need to know the visual possibilities of the project and agree on how we might best communicate information that is not included in the photographs. This will add to our overview of the project and make us more aware of the complexity of data and the challenges in facilitating engagement. 

In The Price of Gold the story was about an illness (silicosis) that did not manifest itself visually, the sick miners didn't look sick. Rather than seeing this as an obstacle, we saw it as a challenge and conceptualised a project around building empathy and connection between the audience and the subjects. The critical information that was needed to convert that connection into understanding was given in it’s simplest form; short stories about each miner, their family, work life and hobbies. The sickness was a given due to their inclusion in the project, what was more effective was to find a connection between them and the audience. 

Ramón Bedoya  2018  ©thom pierce / Guardian / UN Environment / Global Witness

Ramón Bedoya  2018  ©thom pierce / Guardian / UN Environment / Global Witness

3. What do you want them to feel?

How do we want the audience to feel when they look at the photographs?

What should their reaction be to the subject?

Do we want them to feel sad for the person or angry about the injustice of the issue? 

Is our subject a hero or a victim? or are they both?

It’s important to know what emotions we want to try to elicit in our audience. Photography has the power to encourage a reaction from the viewer through composition, lighting, angle and the pose and expression of the subject. What we chose to include or exclude from the frame can make a subtle, but vital, difference to the reading of the image.

In 'The Defenders' series, a collaboration with The Guardian, Global Witness and the UN Environment Program; we wanted the subjects to be seen as heroic for the brave work that they are doing as environmental activists. All of them are victims of immense injustice but it was important that they were not portrayed as such. We did not want the audience to feel sorry for them, we wanted them to be inspired by them.

In this photograph, Ramón Bedoya stands in front of the biodiversity zone at the family farm. His father was in active opposition to the palm oil plantations that were encroaching on their land when he was brutally murdered. This photograph was taken seven months after his father was killed, Ramón is 18 years old and has decided to take over the fight from his father. 

4. What do you want them to do?

Risuna Larry Ngobeni (15) - Mashobye Village, Limpopo - from #Textbooksmatter a collaboration with section 27  

Risuna Larry Ngobeni (15) - Mashobye Village, Limpopo - from #Textbooksmatter a collaboration with section 27

How are we going to convert the initial engagement into something that is more permanent and effective, a tangible act that can contribute towards the campaign? 

We could ask the audience to sign up to an email list, encourage them to send a letter of support,  sign a petition to their local councillor, divest from shares, stop buying certain products, join us at an event or simply repost on social media.

The point of engagement needs to be clear and visible. Even if it is just about building a wider awareness, then we need to make it easy to understand and simple to share. A good communications or advocacy team will know what is effective for their audience based on where they have succeeded or failed in the past. 

5. How will making the project help?

This is taking the engagement one step further. If we make the connection to the right audience, with the information presented in the most effective way and the audience has taken the action that we have asked of them, how does this actually change anything?

Does it put pressure on an organisation to act responsibly? Will the organisation care? Will the shareholders of the organisation care? What are the repercussions of this?

Will people send money? Do we have a plan in place to deal with this?

Will the project have a tangible effect on the lives of the people we are photographing and what is our responsibility in terms of monitoring this? Do we need to measure the efficacy of the advocacy?

What do we tell the subjects when we are making the project? We want them to be invested in what we are doing but it is essential that we do not raise hopes or make promises that we cannot keep. 

The advocacy campaign needs to align with the values of the organisation who are commissioning it and the organisation who are funding it. We need to be certain that we are approaching it in the right way and that the work is necessary. I have worked on projects where the subjects presume that, from their inclusion, they will personally benefit in some way. It is vital that the intention and outputs of the project are explained clearly and that no false expectations are set.  

Epat Echule - Turkana, kenya 2017 - A collaboration with Trocaire

Epat Echule - Turkana, kenya 2017 - A collaboration with Trocaire

6. What are our restrictions (and how will we deal with them in a creative way)? 

Are we putting anyone at risk by showing them in photographs?

Can we show the faces of the subjects or do we need to find creative solutions to mask them?

Are there children involved and, if so, who do we need to get permission from to include them?

Do we have informed consent from the subjects? (more on this in a later blog post)

Can we access the subjects? Are there traditional authorities that we need to get permission from?

Is it safe for us to go? How accessible is the area? Is our presence in the area putting anyone at risk?

What are the parameters for the project that give it structure and let us know when it is finished? (more on this in a later blog post)

If we are only going once, is there a way that we can go twice?*

Life inside a 3x3 metre container - Langa township, Cape Town 2017 - from the series 'This is Home', a collaboration with the development action group.

Working with vulnerable communities has to be treated with sensitivity and there are many considerations to discuss before we begin. Every coherent project needs parameters within which to work and as a team we need to know what rules to apply when creating it.

There are many factors to take in to account that are particular to individual cultures or communities, things that we may not think about. When photographing in South Africa a few years ago, I found out the hard way that in Zulu culture it is bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. At the time I was using an umbrella as a diffuser for my light and it has been part of my practice ever since to ask permission before I use it. 

It is good to have someone familiar with the community to consult with at the start of the project.  Having someone who can advise on cultural etiquette and sensitivities could go a long way towards a positive first impression. 

*My last point is quite important, something that I have learnt over the years. Relationships are key to creating honest and moving images. One of the best ways to build trust in a relationship is to take the time to visit them first, without taking a photograph; to explain the project properly and to ask permission. If this is done then, when we return, we have kept a promise, we have treated them with respect and we are more familiar. We have seen each other before and, unless the first trip went badly, we will be pleased to see each other again. The expectations have been set and we are working to a pre-arranged schedule that is convenient for the subject. It may seem like a waste of budget or time but, if we are wanting to create something of depth and integrity, it can be invaluable. 

Once we have considered all of this information, we can start to think about how we put the project together, based on who we are trying to reach, how they can be reached, what they will respond to and what they will be willing to do. 

Challenges arise from how we tell a story with photographs if the issues do not manifest themselves in an overtly visual way. It’s a challenge that we have the best chance of rising to if we understand what we are doing, why we are doing it and who we are doing it for. 

I believe that efficacy of any piece of advocacy is in the connection, and understanding of a shared humanity that is built between the people who are affected and the people who have the power to force a change. Through photography we can do this. 

This may all seem slightly overwhelming and a complicated way to get started on a photographic project but considering all of these factors will put us on the right track to making something of real value. Comments are welcome. 

Click here more information about how I work visit the 'Work With Me' page on my website.