Imagine the unimaginable. Think for a moment of a world without pictures. Assume that cameras were no more, that humanity had lost the power to document reality with images. Our lives would certainly be poorer, society drastically different, and history, perhaps, set on a very different course.
The truth is that we cannot even imagine a life without pictures. Images are quintessentially who we are. They shape our thinking, they forge our memories, they become our legacy. Maybe the same could be said for the written word, but there is something about pictures that makes them even more powerful: the ability to surprise. Think about it: to say 'old news' is an oxymoron, but old photographs retain strong value. In fact, they can still hold our attention, they stick to our mind making us think, ponder and sometimes question the reality around us. Those are the images that become true classics.
In my life, I had the privilege to work with some of the world's greatest photographers; true professionals who travelled to the most remote corners of the globe to document history unfolding. These are the photojournalists who witness reality up close, and somehow still manage to remove themselves from the picture, choosing to become silent narrators of life. With their work they bring intimacy into tragedies, wars, victories and defeats. Their pictures make us relate to facts and people sometimes far distant and very different of us. They bring humanity together like nothing else.
Who doesn't remember the nine-year-old girl running naked and terrified from the cloud of deadly napalm burning her village in Vietnam? Shot by Vietnamese AP photographer Huynh Cong ''Nick'' Ut on the 8th June 1972, the photo was published by the New York Times and all over the world the following day, bringing the horror and the brutality of the Vietnam War to the front doors of millions. This very powerful image helped sway American public opinion even more decidedly against the Vietnam War. Ut's picture won the Pulitzer Prize, and was chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year for 1972. Most importantly, it is timeless. More than 40 years later, the photo hasn't lost any of its power. It grabs you each and every time, it provokes the same palpable sense of horror and it makes us question the humanity of humanity.
The impact of a single photo sometimes surprises even the very same people who shot the image. Arko Datta was one of the hundreds of photographers covering the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. An Indian national, Arko was used to reporting tragedies; but when he arrived in Cuddalore, a remote village 180 km south of the Indian city of Madras, he saw a scene he - and us with him - would never forget: a woman had discovered the body of a relative on the beach, and had fallen to the ground, in grief. In his picture, Arko intentionally revealed only the bloated hand of the dead body, and focused instead on the utter despair of the grieving woman. Her entire body lying on the bare ground, her hands reaching out in total despair -or perhaps seeking the mercy of God?- are as thought provoking as they are dramatic. Arko really photographed what pain is like. The universally engaging power of his shot was recognized by hundreds of newspapers, magazines and other media outlets across the world, which used the picture and turned it into an icon of the catastrophe. Relief organizations also used the Reuters image to seek donations for the victims of the disaster. The picture received the World Press Photo for 2005, but its real impact goes way beyond the award: Arko's depiction of desperation truly managed to help alleviate the sufferings of many in the region where the picture was taken.
What's beautiful about photojournalism is that there are no written rules. Blood and misery are no guarantee for impact -far from that. An image is truly powerful when it is the outcome of a deep connection between the photographer and the subject of the photo. It's when you wonder how the photographer felt while shooting the picture that you know you are looking at an image unlike many others.
Steve McCurry's Afghan 'Mona Lisa' (the girl with green eyes), which I saw again this summer at an exhibition in Siena (Italy), is a very good example. The simplicity of the picture is striking: a face, staring at the camera. But the face of that 12-year-old girl has a story behind it, and it's all in her eyes. It's the story of a vulnerable refugee who fled Afghanistan for Pakistan at the time of the Russian invasion. It's the story of a fragile, beautiful young girl made an orphan by war. Her dazzling green eyes convey confusion, anxiety, fear, but they are also full of a sense of dignity, which captivated the hearts of millions around the world. As her country was plundered, she stood still. Battered but still standing. The sense of courage emerging from that photo - published in 1985 by National Geographic - triggered an international campaign to find the girl. The nickname 'Mona Lisa' couldn't have been more appropriate. McCurry himself made several unsuccessful attempts to locate the girl during the 1990s, while several men falsely claimed the girl as their wife. The enigma behind the girl's identity lasted almost twenty years. She was finally identified - though iris recognition - as Sharbat Gula only in 2002, when she was shown her famous portrait for the first time. The legacy of Sharbat's picture lasts until today. In recognition of her, the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization promoting education for girls and young women in Afghanistan, was established. In 2008 the scope of the organization was widened to boys, and the charity became known as the Afghan Children's Fund.
We live at a time when photography is readily accessible and when people are increasingly mobile. You no longer need an expensive kit to be able to document what happens around you. A mobile phone is enough to let people into the arena of citizen journalism. The revolutions in Cairo, in Tunisia and all over the Arab world have been documented by millions of pictures uploaded and shared on social media through mobile phones. Some of those pictures are striking, and mainstream media now relies on 'mobile journalism' for their newsgathering.
It is a seismic shift that poses a number of questions from the trustworthiness of the sources to the quality of the final product. The proliferation of images also raises a major conundrum: will an increase in the volume of pictures that we are constantly exposed to diminish our capacity to react? Why - for example - don't we have in our collective memory a striking image from Syria that could help us define our feelings towards this ongoing tragedy? Or, does such an iconic image exist but, due to the proliferation of images before us, we just don't notice anymore?
It is very much an open question. For the moment, I just find it both captivating and refreshing to witness the growth of such a diverse community of people constantly willing to document reality.
This blog post was also published on the Huffington Post.