Photographs, Violence and Place: Christmas Lessons for Change Following the Newtown Tragedy

Since the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, CT, I've been thinking about photographers who focus on social change in efforts to end suffering and injustice. Since early in its history, photography has intersected with the idea that giving view to tragedy can help prevent it. Photographs can offer evidence - a look into a situation that might not be seen or understood. It's based in the idea that "if they only knew” change would come. I've been pondering this idea. Can photography still function this way? Can it still be possible to be changed for the better by looking into tragedy and violence? Or are we so enured to violence; our skins so thickened, that we are incapable of change? Do cognitively-dissonant things like the call for MORE guns cause us to shut down and withdraw? Or can we act in positive ways so that the deaths of these babies will not be in vain?

In the 1880's, photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis went into the tenements of New York City to document the horrible living conditions of the poor. Riis was among the first to use flash photography, and his presentations to wealthy progressives stirred real change.

Chicago had an elementary school named after Jacob Riis. It sat next door to the Jane Addams homes, Chicago’s oldest public housing, in the ABLA neighborhood on the near west side. Both the school and the housing were demolished in 2007 as part of a revitalization move by the City.

There still is a park named after Riis on Chicago's Northwest side, with a worn commemorative marker quoting Theodore Roosevelt, who'd been a longtime friend of Riis. (There’s an extensive Roosevelt connection to both these places, which I’ll explore another day.)

The belief that photography can promote social change remains strong. In Chicago, Krista Wortendyke photographs sites of homicides, while contemporary photographers Joel Sternfeld and Sally Mann work in other locations, exploring connections between violence and place.

In Joel Sternfeld's On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam there is frequent dissonance between photography and experience. Meaning within each image is expanded and sometimes contradicted by a brief text describing murder, corporate malfeasance and other violence that happened on each site. The viewer is required to sort out the dissonance in experience.

Sally Mann's Battlefields attempts to capture some of the experience that inhabits the Antietam Civil War battlefields near her home in Lexington, Virginia. Mann works with photographic technologies in use at the time of the war to capture some of the spiritual essence of the pain residing in these places.

In The Killing Season, Krista Wortendyke set out to record the site of each of the 172 homicides that took place in Chicago between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2010. Her photographs attempt to be a bland record of the place itself. The horror of Wortendyke’s project comes out of the sheer number of images. Wortendyke describes days she had to work fast to make it to every location. And the display of the images, intended to be a visual graph of the violence, ends up looking like a city skyline.

As I write this on a dreary Christmas Day in Chicago, my sincere hope is that the Newtown deaths can function as a positive trigger. We need more support for the mentally ill. We need fewer guns around us. We need greater compassion and more community. The work of these photographers, and others like them, attempts to point us in that direction


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