The Politics of a Single Photograph

Often, major historical events are retrospectively represented by a single photograph. Some examples that come to mind are Tank Man at Tiananmen Square, the numerous and harrowing photos that arose from the Vietnam War, or the photograph of the symbolic gesture of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of red dirt into Indigenous Australian man Vincent Lingiari’s hand.
These photos, arguably, sum up the historical events from which they arose, despite only depicting one split second of them. An article on this could explore many factors. Why is it photographs specifically that garner the most attention? Is it due to an artistic preference, over that of reading, or is photography a better medium to depict history? Then, with the specific photographs in discussion, why them? What do they represent about each event that is so important? Is there a problem with using a single photograph to represent an entire event? For example, does it exclude details? Are they framed in a way that is self-serving for a party that is involved? If they are posed, rather than candid, does this further complicate them as historically accurate?
Or, conversely, is the use of photography in this way a good thing? Does it allow important and poignant moments in history to be recognisable and remembered?

  • When considering the recent exposure of several low-ranking 'celebrities' and 'news' personalities who have been caught posing for photo opportunities amongst the post-riot clean-ups in American cities, this is an apt topic suggestion. A photograph may well speak a thousand words, but it may equally reveal a thousand lies. – Amyus 3 years ago
  • I think this topic could also be expanded to discuss journalist photographers, who are often risking their lives to document these historic moments, and the effects the photos have had on careers, such as the rebuke from the public for stopping to take a photo rather than stopping an injustice before them (such as people being beaten by officers, a starving child being hunted by a vulture - both are real photos) – jkrawlings 2 years ago
  • You might add the Zaprunder film, not a photo, but as significant. In the case of the death of George Floyd, without a picture to accompany his situation, how much reaction would there be? There is a situation that took place, perhaps a year ago, in Mississippi County, Missouri. No pictures accompany the death of this black man, but it is now being investigated again with some comments that there are similarities to the Floyd situation. The power of a photo can be seen when there is none. How a photo can mobilize and which ones lead to change and which ones did not, could be examined in an essay on this topic. – Joseph Cernik 2 years ago
  • Another interesting angle would be to look at how propaganda is spread through certain images. A bare-chested Putin riding a horse sends a very specific message and shapes ideas. As does the image of the Berlin Wall coming down. Images out of context can be used in powerful ways. Often what is not shown on camera or behind the scenes can speak just as much as the photo itself. – PaulaMills 1 year ago

Want to write about Arts or other art forms?

Create writer account