What Is Our Responsibility As Photographers?

I have been challenged by War Photographer, a documentary film about the “anti-war” photographer James Nachtwey. As it points out, though he may have started out with at least a partial desire for the travel and adventure, he has become something of an anomaly: he is a quiet and hopeful photographer, who believes his photography can make a difference, even in such overwhelming issues as war, poverty, hunger, and disease.

He says in the film, “We must look at it, we’re required to look at it, we’re required to do what we can. If we don’t, who will?”

This film is not about a man who pushes to the front lines and is right in the middle of the decisive moment even when the bullet are flying just for personal glory, more prizes, or the photo with the most edge so he can beat out the competition for the front page. The theme that comes through over and over again is that he goes out so he can capture the essence of what is happening around this world, because he believes people want to know, that people want to do something, and in so doing, he is trying to write terms of peace.

I have been questioning the purpose of photography lately, and this is a breath of fresh air. Why even take photos? Why would I go through contortions just to take a beautiful, unique photo of a flower or landscape instead of just enjoy it with my own two eyes and be fully present in the moment? Personal glory? Why do I attempt documentary photography when the photos’ meanings can be so subjective and the story manipulated (by me or others)? Why not just write about it? Am I trying to entertain? Am I seeking personal glory again?

Then I think about my use of Twitter, which for many, including me, is often just “getting my work out there”…i.e. it is all about me and my personal glory. Ich! That may not be a problem for you, but it is certainly easy to do for me. Sure, there are great uses of Twitter and Facebook or blogs (oops!), but it is a matter of the heart.

If am to continue to be a photographer, what is my responsibility? What is my responsibility to my conscience, my God, my culture? James Nachtwey provides a little glimpse in that quote, maybe not the full answer, because that will be different in different situations and for different people, but at least a sign post to get us headed the right direction: “to do what we can”.

What can I do? Well, as much as I would love to begin to rationalize it, I am not going to be able to leave my family for a self-glorious life of photography around the world. So, am I ok…can I just take my flower pictures now? Not quite…at least, that does not begin to console my conscience.

There are plenty of issues close to home too. There are plenty of issues that never hit the main stream media: little injustices around us or maybe even praises of those who are stepping up and doing what they can. There are churches feeding the poor, there are teachers sacrificing financial security to educate, there is the beggar in the intersection, or the lady dying from cancer with a life of experience to pass on.

I agree with James Nachtwey: I think people want to know. There are plenty of people out there, I believe, who are willing to take out the ear buds and reengage society around them. Let’s not entertain or seek our (ill-fated) photographic glory; we do not have the humility to keep it going anyway. Let’s just do what we can.

Cooper Strange Written by:


  1. Jenny

    Hmm, thanks, that’s good food for thought on some things I’ve been thinking about regarding the ‘what’s the higher purpose of photography’ question in the past few days myself. Listened to someone’s message yesterday about offering our talents to God purposes and was thinking about this specifically with photography in mind. This may be for the purpose of making people aware of things they need to know. But, on the other hand, God is an artist and creating beauty is one of the things He does best. If I photograph the flower for its beauty its not somehow ‘lesser’ or more selfish than the photography of some issue or situation that needs action. If I capture the beauty of a flower in a photographic image, it can be an expression of worship of the creator and that beauty brings healing and calm in places where His voice cannot be heard for all the clutter of human chaos. Art and beauty can be worship too!

  2. 2009-11-18

    Well said. Absolutely. All beauty reflects the Father and thus brings glory to him. So, yes, a beautiful photo does bring glory to him, and I would say, even if we do not have such an intention. And as for “enhancing” the beauty with post-production or lighting or angle or whatever, is even better, because we are running with the idea and creating ourselves.

    You can clearly see, though, that (what I have slightly derogatorily called) “flower pictures” are not my primary focus, though. I do not see that as my place, if that makes sense.

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