Documentary Photography: A Powerful Tool for Social Change

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The power of photography as a tool of communication is unquestionable. This is evidenced by the manner in which the medium, since its advent, has revolutionized the way people communicate and record events for social and political purposes. Nonetheless, little attention has been paid to the importance of documentary photography. As Peter Szto (2008) explains, historians have been largely interested in the chronological history of photography journalism while paying little attention to the effectiveness of this method of documenting events. It is worth acknowledging that documentary photography is an effective means for provoking social change. This has been demonstrated by the success of world-renowned photographers such as Sebastião Salgado, Shahidul Alam, Antoine d’Agata, and Abbas, whose photographs have drawn the interest of sociologists, politicians, NGOs, as well as the general public (Stallabrass 1997; Wolford 2011; Magnum Photographers). This essay seeks to defend the idea that documentary photography is a powerful tool for driving social change. At the same time, it will be noted that photographers ought to take caution in ensuring that only the necessary truth is communicated.

            One photographer whose documentary work has brought about a much-needed social change is Sebastião Salgado. By capturing images of human suffering, Salgado practices photography to provoke and disrupt (Wolford 2011, p. 444). He achieves this by cleverly combining distance and intimacy to capture images of people in situations of poverty, war, isolation, exploitation, and marginalization (Wolford 2011, p. 444). It is his images of people in regions with ongoing wars and genocide that are mostly considered disturbing. While many may not understand why Salgado made a career out of capturing images of people suffering, it is the impact that his photography has had that makes his career choice worthwhile. Salgado’s photographs have impacted upon millions of people, who have in turn responded by pushing for the much-needed change of circumstances.  

            One of Salgado’s earliest and most effective documentary works was that of Brazil’s National March of 1997. The march followed the use of force by the country’s law enforcement personnel to silence the poor, who were fighting for the right to occupy unused land (Wolford 2011, p. 447). With dozens of people being massacred between 1995 and 1996 for their involvement in the peaceful demonstrations, what followed was a nationwide march to the nation’s capital, with the public demanding for the rightful response to the interests of the poor (Wolford 2011). While coverage by various media outlets played a part in attracting members of the public to the course, it is Salgado’s photographs that served to inform the world of the ongoing atrocities in the country. Salgado set up an exhibition, in which he depicted the poor going about their everyday life. He also depicted the demonstrations and the unfortunate massacres that were committed upon those who voiced the interests of the poor. Consequently, Salgado’s exhibition attracted worldwide publicity while drawing the interest of sociologists and of religious institutions (Wolford 2011; Stallabrass 1997). One factor that made his exhibition such a success is the nonpartisan approach he took. Rather than using photography to rebuke the government, he only sought to frame the issue of landlessness in Brazil. He did this by bearing witness to the suffering of the landless in the country. Yet, the horrific nature of the images was such that every member of the public in the country and beyond sympathized with the course of the movement for the landless.

            As demonstrated through Salgado’s case study, documentary photography is an effective avenue for capturing the reality on the ground. Ordinarily, the media reports of millions of people in situations of drought and famine, thousands of deaths occurring in war-torn regions, and of people suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters (Strauss 2003; Tagg 2009). However, these figures become meaningless once we start considering them as the ‘same-old news’ (Tagg 2009). However, with photographic evidence, this information gains new meaning. This explains why the gruesome images of children with amputated arms in war-torn Syria and of rivers of blood in the country’s capital have opened up people’s minds on the meaning of war (Dinstein 2017). People who get the chance to view images of people suffering get to sympathize with the voiceless, rather than merely taking a political side on the situation that has led to the situation (Alam). Given the power of images to change the mindsets of people, it is indisputable that documentary photography is a powerful tool for social change.

            As a tool for documenting information, documentary photography ought to be exercised with the right intention. As suggested by Tom Pilston and Antonio Olmos in a conversation hosted by Grant Scott (The United Nations of Photography 2016), it is important that photographers tell their stories in a smart manner. This is because, just like photography has the power to provoke a positive reaction resulting in a justified social change, it also has the power to draw a negative reaction to a situation that deserves empathy (Ritchin 2013). This is particularly likely to happen when the wrong people are in charge of the camera. Such people are likely to manipulate photographs to communicate their agendas. With the ever increasing and improving digital editing tools, it is now easier than ever for an image to be altered to give a false version of reality.

            As Antonio Olmos observes, the people in the maximum situation of power are often the ones with the least knowledge of situations (The United Nations of Photography 2016). This explains why an article in a major newspaper in New York is likely to give a false or highly altered story about a person in Bangladesh (The United Nations of Photography 2016; Alam). To alienate such situations, documentary photographers ought to distinguish themselves from reporters and amateur photographers by serving to provide a voice for the people in low situations of power. Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi documentary photographer, has already done this successfully and has been furthering the effectiveness of documentary photography by training young people from poor backgrounds to follow in his footsteps. By doing this, he improves the chance that the message communicated through photographs will come from the right people.


The power of photography as a tool of communication is undisputed. Similarly, documentary photography has the power to showcase an aspect of reality that is commonly hidden from the public sight. However, little attention has been given to the power of documentary in provoking social change. As demonstrated through the example of Sebastião Salgado’s project in Brazil, documentary photography can be informative and equally influential in elevating the voice of the voiceless. For this to be possible, documentary photographers ought to emulate the example set by Shahidul Alam, who trains young individuals from poor backgrounds to increase the chance that future documentary photography will be pursued by people from low positions of power.


Alam, S. Shahidul Alam on power relations in photography (5:22).   

Dinstein, Y. (2017). War, aggression and self-defence. New York: Cambridge University Press

            Left Review, 1(223), pp. 131-162.

Magnum Photographers.

            New York: Aperture.

Ritchin, F. (2013) Bending the Frame: photojournalism, documentary, and the citizen. New    York: Aperture.

Stallabrass, J. (1997) ‘Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism’, New

Strauss, D. L. (2003) Between the Eyes: essays on photography and politics.

Szto, P. (2008) ‘Documentary Photography in American Social WelfareHistory: 1897-1943’, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 35(2),pp. 91-110.

Tagg, J. (2009) The Disciplinary Frame: photographic truths and the capture of meaning.         Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The United Nations of Photography. (2016). Photography A Visual Language: The Social Document Part 1.            photography-a-visual-language-the-social-document-part-1/

Wolford, W. (2011). Making a Difference: Sebastião Salgado and the Social Life of             Mobilization. Sociological Forum. 26, 444-450.

August 01, 2023


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