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The Power of Photography

April 14, 2014

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” —Diane Arbus

  Saint Patrick’s Day, 2013. It’s taken three trains and two hours to get to King’s Cross Station in St. Patrick's Day 2013 in London. The photographic proof that it was cold and pretty miserable. London. It’s a Sunday, and a holiday, so everyone and their aunt seems to be riding the Tube. When the train finally comes to a halt at King’s Cross, I have to push through the jam packed train car to get to the door before it closes. I stop briefly on the platform to gather my surroundings. Then, I have to push my way through the crowds of one of London’s largest (and busiest) stations. I surface next to a construction site and watch as large drops of rain pool in the seat of an empty crane, its giant claw resting on the beam of an unfinished building. I didn’t know it was supposed to rain. Cursing myself for (once again) not remembering an umbrella, I stand briefly under the station’s awning, gathering my courage before launching myself out into the street. I walk uphill past a sea of umbrellas, Kabab shops and internet cafes, until I finally reach my friend’s apartment. I press up against the side of the building, trying to avoid the ever increasing rain, and buzz up to her. She comes down and we’re off—we’re going to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade near Charring Cross.

  Another flurry of turnstiles, Tube rides, and crowds gets us to Charring Cross, only to discover that we have missed the parade—all that is left is some band neither of us have V-J Day in Times Square, Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt heard of, playing to a dwindling and very wet crowd. We’re both cold, wet, and we’ve spent almost half the day getting to a parade we won’t get to see. Dejected, I turn to my friend, and say to her: “Well, we may as well take pictures while we’re here.” We take one photo, and then another. She says “Pretend like you’re having a great time!” We start getting into it, making it into a game; creating a world through pictures that proves that on this gray, miserable London day we had simply the most fantastic time at a St. Patrick’s Day Parade that we most definitely got to see.

The funny thing is, is that when I look back on those photos, I know intellectually that it was a pretty miserable day. But I don’t remember it that way. I look at those photos, and I see myself smiling and having a good time. And that’s how I remember it. Somehow, those pictures have shaped how I perceive that event in my past. Really, those pictures are the only tangible, static thing I have of that day—everything else exists in my memory and mind, and those two things have a way of changing more than we think they do.


 But how is photography art, and what is it good for?  You point, you click; what the camera captures is Afghan Girl, photograph by Steve McCurry for National Geographicsimply a recording of light and pattern. That in itself isn’t art, but even the recording of events as they are can, even by an unskilled photographer, be a potent tool for change and action; for memory and the future. In skilled hands, the power of photography to shape memory, bear witness, and be truly moving is even greater. Like an archeologist, good photographers make discoveries, carefully uncovering and piecing together our world in every picture they take. Photography is a celebration of our world, a revelation of its intricacies, and a tool to relate to others, to prove, and to protect. To discover how to do that through image is very difficult. Yet somehow, perhaps because of the ease with which we all can take photos, many people discount photographers as lesser artists. At the same time, these same people have huge prints of the V-J Day Kiss photograph plastered on their walls. They love that iconic American photo of The Battle of Iwo Jima. Steve McCurry’s picture of an Afghan Girl can still move them to tears with her searing green eyes, even after 20 years. For those who challenge photography for its artistic integrity, I say: Photography doesn’t need any defense; it is its own defense, and that’s more than enough.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, photograph by Joe Rosenthal Read some more about what other people say about the power of photography: herehere and here

 Then experience first-hand the power of photography at Community Arts Center’s latest exhibit:
New Eyes in Danville
Drawings, Prints and Photographs by Rochelle Bayless and Nick Lacy
Saturday, April 5 – Saturday, May 3, 2014

-Lydia K.,Centre College Class of 2014
French and Dramatic Arts
Community Arts Center intern