Research point: Forgotten communities

Identifiable trends in documentary photography – such as the more personally-driven work typified by the New York school, or the growth of colour documentary, or the deadpan chronicling of the likes of Parr – may come along and add to the mix, or even be the predominant ‘flavour’ of the time, but in the end they add to rather than replace the more traditional social-change-driven documentary.

The work of Manuel Rivera-Ortiz (b.1968), Sebastiao Salgado (b.1944) and others demonstrates that social documentary as activism, à la Riis, Hine, Lange, Evans et al, still continues to exist in the modern world.

Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado

The course notes highlight Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado in particular for the work they did with communities affected by poverty in developing countries. One of the interesting aspects of both men is the gestures they have made to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ (if that’s not an inappropriate phrase for non-profit based endeavours…). Rivera-Ortiz established a foundation in his own name, with the stated mission:

“… to support photo and film reportage as a catalyst for change and social justice in communities where needs are most pressing.” –

Salgado promotes the rights-free delivery of images to those at the centre of the cause in question, giving back to the affected community the ‘voice’ the the work has amplified. This way the photographer cannot be accused of having an agenda, or from exploiting the cause for his or her own gain.

In the 2005 University of California interview Salgado and curator Fred Ritchie speak of the difficulty of getting images published in the mainstream US media and the need to work in different media and different countries to circumvent the prevailing editorial constraints – which speaks to the extent to which the mainstream media get to drive the narrative in many western societies.

One interesting question (to which I do not have a simple answer) is the extent to which the continued expansion of the internet into developing countries will make information about such ‘forgotten communities’ easier to communicate, without the editorial control of big media – or will it get subsumed in the torrent of imagery that multiplies on a daily basis?

British photographer-activists

You don’t need to travel quite so far away from home to find ‘forgotten communities’ and in turn find the photographer-as-activist. In recent years I have visited exhibitions of UK-based photographers who use the camera as a tool for pushing a social change agenda and giving voice to more local communities.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Nick Hedges (b.1943) produced a huge body of images taken to highlight the squalid living conditions that some of Britain’s poorest families were suffering. These were finally exhibited in 2014/15. Did they instigate social change? It’s not clear whether they directly led to policy change, but the main use at the time was as part of Shelter’s political campaigning for better housing conditions.

More recently, Mark Neville (b.1966) is a UK photographer who has worked on a number of socially-driven projects, including Deeds Not Words, which I saw in 2013. This focused on a specific geographical community, Corby in Northamptonshire, affected by a spate of childhood deformities linked to the disposal of toxic waste by the local council. Neville’s method of distribution was interesting: he produced a photobook that wasn’t generally available but sent to 433 UK local authority environmental health officers, and selected international environmental agencies – an audience he believed might actually have an influence on policy on contaminated land and toxic waste. However, it remains unclear how successful this was in actually leading to any changes in policy.


The course handbook asks us to consider a couple of questions:

  • Is there a connection to be made with the work of Riis and Hine in the first half of the twentieth century?
    • I think so; the context is different, the media landscape is different, the horizons of many viewers have been vastly expanded – but at bottom the aims of the activist-photographer is the same: to use images to drive social change (not simply to witness or chronicle)
  • Can a documentary photographer really make a difference?
    • Some can; Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado clearly have – but I’m not wholly sure that ‘making a difference’ is as common as simply ‘raising awareness’
    • Salgado goes as far as to say in the interview clip that it’s not enough to show problems, one must also show solutions

Sources (accessed 27/01/2016) (accessed 27/01/2016) (accessed 27/01/2016) (accessed 27/01/2016)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s