‘Etched in Our Memories’

The first edition of Photos That Changed the World appeared in 2000, one of various volumes put out by the great art and photography publisher Prestel to commemorate both the accomplishments and tragedies of the 20th century, in this instance as they were captured in still photography. There's a new edition of the work out this year, and the only difference between the two is that the newer one contains four additional images that bring the volume squarely into the 21st century. The inclusion of these four pictures makes perfect sense, though they depict some of the most devastating occurrences of the last several years: the attack on the World Trade Center; the genocide in Darfur, Sudan; the tsunami in the Indian Ocean; and Hurricane Katrina's ravenous effect on New Orleans. Not pretty sights, but definitely powerful and in need of inclusion in such a book.

In all other ways, the work is the same as its predecessor, and is presented with the same intent. Once again, Peter Stepan, the editor, notes in his brief foreword that many photographs exist that we appreciate for their composition and taste — and then there are those photos that disturb us "so deeply that they are etched in our memories forever." The book he has given us, especially with its additional images, is definitely about these latter kinds of pictures, generally known as photojournalism, which tend, if successful, to rock the foundations of our being.

The editor then takes his point one step further: Many of the images that have been gathered here not only moved those who saw them but they also managed to set social action into motion, helping to transform society in positive ways. He cites as examples Lewis W. Hine's photos depicting the abuses of child labor in early 20th-century America that compelled Congress to enact stringent laws protecting the young; and the photos taken by the Farm Security Administration, especially in the Midwest and South, that exposed the pervasiveness of poverty in these regions during the Great Depression.

"Similarly," Stepan continues, "Robert Capa's photograph of a dying Spanish soldier, photographs of massacres in Vietnam and China, images of starvation in Biafra — to mention but a few — mobilized public opinion."

But he's also had to admit that some photographs, despite the fact that they're as equally powerful as those he's listed, made no such impact, though they clearly had the potential to do so. He points to horrific photos taken of the genocides in Armenia and Tibet. "Perpetrated 'on the quiet' in obscure corners of the world," he adds, "these crimes are in danger of being forgotten."

Neither Jewish images nor Jewish photographers predominate in Photos That Changed the World — though the book contains examples of both — but the Holocaust and its aftermath, to say nothing of subsequent genocides, are pervasive. And, considering this subject alone, you could argue that images have done nothing to eradicate the problem, though they may have stirred public opinion and mobilized people to protest in favor of action.

But taking the long historical view, the exposure of the Holocaust and its horrors has not put an end to genocide, as we know from more recent examples of the crime in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and, as this new edition reminds us, in Darfur.

Nor has exposure of hate crimes through images ended anti-Semitism or any other form of bias against specific groups. Many writers suggested at the end of World War II that exposure to the most famous images from the camps — the rotting piles of corpses, the stick-thin survivors staring back at the camera as if from some netherworld — might finally convince people that those who'd always hated Jews meant what they said and were willing, given the proper conditions, to act upon their feelings.

Still, it seems that no amount of images — no matter how stark or awful in their particulars — can eradicate the ancient hatreds or stop the crimes that generally follow along from them. For example, have the photos of the aftermath of suicide bombings in Israel helped to erase even a trace of anti-Semitism? I think it's the opposite. They may even encourage more blood lust against Jews.

But using the history of the last 15 years as a guide, photos, even the harshest or most artful, may whip hatred into a greater frenzy than ever before — and, in a corollary development, may perhaps dull the senses of some so completely that indifference grows, permitting the bold ones to perpetrate the crimes without interference from their more pacified fellow citizens.


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