The Power of Photography

Benita - Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Entered on September 25, 2013

I believe in the power of photography to change people’s perceptions about life and what is important to them. As a photography teacher for over 30 years, I‘ve seen student’s faces change when they realize something profound is before them.

In my first photography class as a student at Daytona Beach Community College we were given the assignment to shoot a documentary spending weeks concentrating on one specific subject. One of my classmates didn’t have access to transportation because his wife used their only car for work. With this restriction, he chose to photograph the gas station one block away from his apartment. There were more than a few snickers when Tony announced his intended project, and comments about “what could possibly be visually interesting in a gas station?” ensued. Years later, his photographs of silhouetted cars with glistening highlights from the low lying sun, patrons leaning against their vehicles in a daze during the sweltering heat, and vanity plates with credos or clever sayings are still fixtures in my mind.

One afternoon Tony arrived home after leaving the gas station, fixed himself a sandwich and turned on the police scanner that he religiously listened to, even without the means to attend any local accident or event. There had just been a homicide and the address was way too familiar. Tony grabbed his camera and breathlessly ran, arriving just in time to photograph the narrow pool of blood running down the curved slope of the driveway where the gas station owner had just bludgeoned his girlfriend to death. Instantly, the last month of images became a record of a relationship in turmoil, where subtle signals of body language were interpreted with intentions never envisioned before that day. Tony earned a new respect among his peers, and eventually, throughout his career as he went on to be a prize-winning photo editor of a large newspaper.

What we saw in those individual images changed us; changed the way we looked at each other and the way we looked at photography in general. I often give my students the assignment to ‘find a photo that has changed the world’. Some come with photographs that have personally changed their world. Some come with images that are universally breathtaking and distressing, like the twin towers on fire. Either way, photographs have power beyond the printed paper or the screen they are projected on. They can bring us to our knees with the message of a shared humanity and visual clues to raw emotions just under the surface. I can’t imagine teaching anything that I believe in more.