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What is "Activist Photography?"

Years ago I read an interview with a well-known documentary photographer, an artist whose work I admire immensely. In the interview, he indicated that he had learned that his images were not going to change the world. "How arrogant he must have been," I thought, "if he once had thought they would." The point is not to think one can change the world by producing pictures. Rather, photographers who want to have a social impact have to think about how our pictures may contribute to change; the ways they may support and be part of the movements for social justice, for peace, for environmental sanity.

I still believe that in order to do that, they have to be good pictures.

I've heard that the great photographer W. Eugene Smith hoped his images from World War II would end war. That was an unrealistic expectation. But his documentation of the struggles of the fishing community of Minamata, Japan, to get the Chisso Corporation to accept responsibility for the environmental and public health crimes they had committed—a struggle for which he ultimately gave his life—was a material contribution to that campaign.

When non-union contractors were hired in a project converting an abandoned school to apartments, the building trades and Cleveland Jobs with Justice were there to defend workers' rights

I am a photographer-- what is sometimes called a "documentary photographer"-- and an activist in movements for progressive social change, for justice and peace. My goal has always been to integrate my photography and the social or political activism which it is intended to be a part of. This is different from producing work with "social content," or what's sometimes called "political art." For one thing, it may seem more like journalism than art. It's more like the work of the many people who labor as journalists for alternative publications. The object is to be an active part of the movement you are working with. In the end, activist photography will be judged by the extent to which it contributes to those movements, helps to realize their goals, and perhaps also broadens their cultural concerns.

In these pages I plan in time to present work from some current projects, as well as providing connections to larger collections of my photography and other links of interest. I also want to invite comments and questions, and to tell you how you or your organization can display some of this work, or get copies of some materials I have produced.

Meanwhile, a list of the materials I'm showing here is available on the Contents page.

You can see a broader representation of my photography by surfing over to my pages at pbase.com, and if you're interested you can see my resumé by clicking here.

A young Salvadoran musician participating in the triumphal final concert on the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, part of the New Song festival celebrated while the war was still raging, April, 1988

Would you like to read a serious discussion of the subject of activist photography? I'll immodestly suggest my own article, "Notes on 'Activist Photography,'" in R. de la Campa, E.A. Kaplan and M. Sprinker, eds., Late Imperial Culture, Verso, 6 Meard Street, London W1V 3HR, UK or 180 Varick Street, New York, NY 10014, USA. At least you'll get one (admittedly polemical) view, and references to other sources.

I'll avoid legalese as much as possible, but please treat these images with respect as my intellectual property. They are all copyright©2007, Steve Cagan, and may not be reproduced or used in any way whatsoever without my express written consent. Sorry, but you all know why that was necessary. Because these pages are about photography, I have used images of somewhat better resolution than you sometimes see on web pages; I hope you will respect that and not download the images without permission. Thanks.

Like most independent photographers, I'm always looking for work. I'm available for assignment, either here in the Cleveland area, or anywhere in the country or in the world.

Thanks for your interest, your patience and your comments.

Steve Cagan (steve@stevecagan.com)

 About Steve & Activist Photography  | Résumé/c.v./Currículum | Contents / ContenidoPhoto Catalog on pbase.com  | Photos, posters, postcards, books for sale/a la venta | ContactContactarHome