Critical Theory & Photography

Beware – I’m about to get heavy (there are also some fairly graphic photographs). This is a bit of a personal exploration, feel free to come along for the ride. While photography is my passion, my career is teaching, and I am currently engaged with my Master’s in Education, undertaking research based on Critical Theory. Sometimes my passion and study ideas start to combine.

My studies are leading me towards a desire to affect change. Specifically, I would like to develop my photography to a stage where my photos may lead to a better society. This photographic goal leads on from my research undertaken relating to Critical Theory. Critical Theory is (very basically), the idea that we live in a world that is not equitable, or fair, and it seeks to redress the balance of power. Power is important as we live in a world geared towards the wealthy. Information is a controlled commodity, and as photographers, we have an opportunity to explore and reveal the truth.

Affecting change through images is hard to do in a world where it is widely claimed that, ‘no one gives a shit about your photography’. Perhaps this is what drives photographers to the more extremes of what can be shot, graphic and sexual violence, gun use and gangs. Extreme images can shock, and it is this shock that drives people to change society.

Struggling Girl, Photograph by Kevin Cartertime-100-influential-photos-kevin-carter-starving-child-vulture-87.jpg

Kevin Carter claimed that this was his most successful photo, and one he hated. This photograph may have been one of the drivers behind his suicide. He was criticised for not helping the girl afterwards. However, I think people are quick to blame others. This style of photograph does affect change, in this case bringing the attention of famine in Sudan to the world.

Napalm girl, Photographer Nick Ut

There are claims that it was through photography that pressure was placed on the US Government to halt the Vietnamese war. Perhaps no photograph did it as well as this image captured by Nick Ut, a picture of a naked, young girl hit by American forces.

Now I am NOT saying I want to head off to a war zone, or an area ravaged by disease and famine, but feel there is a need to make a difference, I’m just not sure how. Yet.

Of late documentary photography has got a lot of grief, and even the integrity of Magnum founder Robert Capa has been questioned. In my next article, I am going to discuss photo manipulation – and am wondering if it matters as much as people think it does…

2 Comments on “Critical Theory & Photography

  1. I met Miss Kim, the girl in that photo, just a few weeks ago! And it was because of that photo that I have looked at since I was a young teen, that I was completely affected by meeting and talking with her. Her’s is a story of pain, determination, gratitude and forgiveness. And it all started with that photo! Powerful!


  2. Thanks for the comment, photography is a powerful medium! ‘The Girl in the Picture’, is a book about Miss Kim and what happened to her before and after this photograph was taken. It is a heavy, but worthwhile read (it sounds like you may have read it already). Meeting her would have been an interesting experience, as it is a photo we have seen so many times.


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