Recently I attended an online lecture where the speaker was Mariama Attah. She is a curator and editor and was speaking about photography as activism. Increasingly, I describe myself as an activist, so this lecture was obviously appealing.
A lot was discussed and I noted some useful guiding principles to take away.
* Activism is actively challenging existing power relations in a public way.
* Activism involves some degree of risk and so courage is involved in making an activist stand.
* An activist has a personal engagement with an issue that is meaningful to them.
These guidelines all make sense to me and represent a progression of my previous view that someone who is active in addressing an issue is an activist. These guidelines preclude anonymity, keyboard warriors hiding behind concocted usernames. Likewise, those who are active in order to preserve existing power relations. Industry lobbyists and billionaire-funded think tanks come to mind as groups that are excluded by these guidelines. Industry lobbyists and activists are not the same things and it is appropriate to be reminded of the divide.
Attah went on describe two ways in which photography might be considered activism:
* By creating work that actively challenges power relations.
* By recording and amplifying the actions of other activists.
The first instance brings to mind photographers like Edward Burtynsky, Gideon Mendel and Lisa Kristine who go into the field and record ways in which the human world is failing, then confronting their audiences with this evidence.
The second instance reminds me of Natasa Leone, James Knapp, Feng Ho and Joe Taylor. These photographers are my peers on the Extinction Rebellion South East Photographers team. We attend actions as photojournalists and record the bravery and the inventiveness of the rebels. Our work then appears in many different types of media to amplify the efforts of those putting themselves up for arrest and demonstrating on the streets.
This lecture challenged my practice (do more) but also reassured me that the direction of travel in my practice is good. The activist photographer has a vital role to play.
I am encouraged.
(Featured picture: Mariama Attah, courtesy of https://www.1000wordsmag.com/)