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How we wield one of the world’s most powerful weapons; Gobe writer Eleanor Scott looks at the artists, journalists, companies and photographers championing photography for social change.

Words by Eleanor Scott

Images are powerful. Time and time again history has shown that one simple click can impact minds and create lasting change on both small and large scales. In the early 1900s, landscape photographer Ansel Adams set out to capture images of the High Sierra and other natural wonders. His passion for the wild led him to advocate for land protections in Washington, and his photographs were instrumental in establishing conservation policy in America. There are plenty of other examples: Gordon Parks and the civil rights movement; Lynsey Addario and Afghanistan; Eddie Adams and the Vietnam War.

“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.”

Eddie Adams, TIME MAGAZINE

However, as Eddie Adams wrote for Time magazine, “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.” And photographers need to be careful with how they wield that power. Adam’s 1968 image of the national police chief of South Vietnam executing a Viet Cong fighter offered a brutal glimpse into the Vietnam War; one that immediately shifted public opinion. But, according to Adams himself, it also lacked context and he regretted the result it had on one of its subjects.

Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, 1968Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, 1968

“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … Photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths,” Adams wrote for Time. “What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?’… This picture really messed up his life.”

Even still, photography remains one of the most effective ways to communicate across the barriers of culture, language, time and experience. Sometimes it just needs to be in the right hands. Social enterprises like Lensational attempt to shift the power from the photographer to the subject by, in some ways, making them one and the same.

Since it was founded by Bonnie Chiu in 2013, Lensational has trained over 400 marginalised women to share their experience through photography. Operating in at least 15 countries, the social enterprise works in three stages. First, they organise basic photography workshops with local organisations and volunteers. Second, they provide donated cameras to women. And third, with the help of social media and exhibitions, they highlight the women’s stories and put their photos up for sale on the Lensational website. Once sold, a portion of the revenue from the photographs is set aside for operating the social enterprise and advocating for the issues the women face.

“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … Photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths,” Adams wrote for Time. “What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?’… This picture really messed up his life.”

Even still, photography remains one of the most effective ways to communicate across the barriers of culture, language, time and experience. Sometimes it just needs to be in the right hands. Social enterprises like Lensational attempt to shift the power from the photographer to the subject by, in some ways, making them one and the same.

Since it was founded by Bonnie Chiu in 2013, Lensational has trained over 400 marginalised women to share their experience through photography. Operating in at least 15 countries, the social enterprise works in three stages. First, they organise basic photography workshops with local organisations and volunteers. Second, they provide donated cameras to women. And third, with the help of social media and exhibitions, they highlight the women’s stories and put their photos up for sale on the Lensational website. Once sold, a portion of the revenue from the photographs is set aside for operating the social enterprise and advocating for the issues the women face.

“The concept of using photography as an agent for social change isn’t a new one, but these social enterprises go beyond that by making photography an active tool rather than a catalyst or a prompt.”

On a smaller scale, the Kalumburu Photography Collective in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia is another initiative that looks to support and empower women. With the help of Enterprise Learning Projects WA and Yallingup-based photographer Freedom Garvey-Warr, local Indigenous women have come together to “archive, share and celebrate their culture”. They recently launched their second annual photography calendar, the profits of which go towards funding the community-driven microenterprise.

“This project strengthens the women’s connection to country, culture and language, as well as promoting health and wellbeing,” says Enterprise Learning Projects facilitator Clare Woods. “It provides a tangible and realistic opportunity for economic empowerment and enables people to create their own solutions to the issues impacting their lives.”

“Doing business can make your life count, make your children proud,” added photographer and entrepreneur Tarisha Mouda. “I want to live long, I want to learn. I feel excited to hold a camera and take photos. Nothing is going to hold me back. I want to become something.”

LensationalImage by Nargis, Lensational

The concept of using photography as an agent for social change isn’t a new one, but these social enterprises go beyond that by making photography an active tool rather than a catalyst or a prompt. However, they don’t diminish photography’s power to provoke action simply through an image. For all its possible pitfalls, photography has a rich history of people who have successfully, and respectfully, used the medium to support movements for social change, bring underrepresented issues to the forefront, and contribute to the lives of the people in the images.

And there are plenty of resources out there that help photographers stay on the right path. The Photography Ethics Centre, another social enterprise, provides free education to photographers all over the world on how they can harness their geopolitical power in positive ways. The organisation is dedicated to “raising awareness about ethics in photography” and does so in a variety of ways, but not only for photographers themselves. Offering a combination of online classes, workshops and consultancy work, the Photography Ethics Centre provides training for individual photographers all the way through to international NGOs and media groups.

In particular, the Photographer’s Ethical Toolkit is a great primer on the basics. The free course aims to ensure that empathy, autonomy, integrity and consent all play a part in your photography practice. Because whether it’s used as a tool or a catalyst, one this is certain: photography has the power to influence and impact the world around us. But for it to be a force for good, that power has to be wielded with care and consideration.

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Eleanor Scott

Eleanor Scott is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor. With over five years of experience she has written for publications like the Guardian US and Neighbourhood Paper, and her work has always reflected her passion for art, design, photography, and culture. Previously the assistant editor of Australia's most widely read sustainable architecture magazine, if she wasn’t a writer she’d probably have become a designer – or indulged her love of surfing and become a permanent beach bum.