Impact Of Photojournalism Upon Important Of American Culture History Essay

From its inception in the 1850’s, photojournalism has played a major role in shaping American history. Photojournalism, broadly defined, is the communication of news through pictures. It has extended our sense of understanding of things previously unknown. “Seeing, as the old saw goes, is believing, and in the post-literate age the visual is more persuasive than it used to be” [1] . Photojournalism has had an increasingly important impact upon every segment of American culture. Its influence is felt in all segments of American society: art, music, science and politics. The ability of people to experience current events through photojournalism has increased the understanding of such events. By looking back at photographs taken by photojournalists during important events in American history we understand their importance and the role photojournalism played in steering the opinion of the American public by the way in which the information was presented. Helping us to understand events as they take place, photojournalism has played a vital role in shaping and directing the development of modern American society.

Photojournalism is the art of telling a news story with photographs. Importance is placed not just on the picture itself but how it is chosen, edited and placed in the layout along with the accompanying caption. Photojournalism separates itself from documentary, recreational and illustrative photography by adhering to a code of journalistic integrity that require photos to be timely, fair and accurate representations and along with words, tell a story of an event.

Photojournalism helps us to understand our world by conveying an immediate, visceral story of an actual event told by a witness to the event. Every day, we are bombarded by hundreds of images such that it is hard to imagine a time before the invention of photography. “Pictures”, until the invention of photography, meant paintings or drawings of events long past. An example of this is the painting ‘Shoshone Falls’ by Thomas Moran. Painted from sketches he made in 1873, helped to convince Congress to make the Yellowstone region a national park – but not until 1911. When the first photograph was produced in 1826, it was created on a pewter plate with a number of homemade chemicals. The entire process took over eight hours to complete and was low quality at best. By 1853, photography had evolved to an extent that it allowed photojournalists such as Carol Szathmari, considered the first photojournalist, to document the Crimean War. The images, were translated first into wood engravings, then printed, and finally published. Paintings of the era focused on the heroic, and were typically posed, still life and romanticized images, often interpretations by the painter. Photographs, on the other hand, offered images of actual events as they occurred.

Photography brought home the realities of the Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, people in early America kept up to date by reading news pamphlets often posted in the public square. Photography created a new form of communication during the Civil War. The most famous photographer during this time, Mathew Brady (whose photographs of Lincoln had been credited by Lincoln for helping him win the presidency of 1860, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President” [2] ), recorded many of the events. The New York Times wrote “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of the war.” [3] By exposing both the mundane as well as the horrors of war, Brady’s photojournalistic efforts provided insight for those at home and made Northerners and Southerners question whether the war was worth their sacrifices. [4] 

Franklin Roosevelt used the persuasive power of photojournalism to sway public opinion in favor of his New Deal. Recognizing the influence of photojournalism, FDR formed the Farm Security which hired photographers to document the plight of the farmers in the Midwest. The resulting photographs are considered by many to be some of the best documentary photos of American photojournalism. The stark photos of migrant farmers who had gone west after The Great Depression and landed in the Dust Bowl, revealed the despair of those living in poverty. Dorothea Lange’s photograph, Migrant Mother, characterizes the difficulties during this time period [5] . Photos from the Farm Security agency are credited with fostering the public’s support for FDR’s social welfare program.

The development of the portable camera ushered in the era of modern journalism. With their portability, ease of use, and low cost, cameras became easily accessible to many. The new technology allowed photographers to shoot pictures that truly captured the moment. An example of this is the photograph of Albert Einstein [6] which famously shows the spontaneity that could be captured with the new type of camera. Photojournalism began to have a broader impact as photographs brought events to life, making the event more relevant to the viewer. The powerful effect of photojournalism was realized and used to sway public opinion on everything from politics to global causes. “The Golden Age” of photojournalism lasted from 1935 to the end of WWII when photographs were censored, and then rose again and lasted until 1990. It was a time when photojournalists were as celebrated as movie stars and more people were influenced by photographs than any other medium of communication.

The creation of the photojournalistic magazine altered the personal outlook of millions of readers across the world by making news through photographs readily accessible. The launch of Life magazine in 1936 brought world events into people’s homes. Life was the most influential of many photojournalism magazines during this time period. These magazines were designed around a format of photographers and editors working together to tell a story. Photographers submitted a number of photographs with editors selecting the ones they thought best conveyed the story they were seeking to tell. In 1936, Life circulated one million copies every week. By World War II, this form of news was extremely popular, and ideas and articles from Life shaped how people thought and acted, especially towards the war [7] .

By the mid 1940’s Life had become deeply biased. In an edition titled “Detroit is Dynamite”, Life criticized the Detroit Race Riots and the Labor Unions calling them “lusty” (pg15) and “confused, embittered and distracted” [8] . American’s views of the citizens of Detroit as unpatriotic were fueled by ‘news’ that Detroit had a “Job [that] still remains to be done” [9] and that the citizens of the city were not doing their duty as Americans to support the war effort.

The images from World War II of both the fighting and the Nazi concentration camps inspired and horrified the nation and the world. One inspirational photo stands above the rest because of its impact. In February of 1945, American marines landed on the shores of Iwo Jima and proceeded to fight a horrifying battle. On February 23, a picture taken by Joe Rosenthal, captured the moment a small group of marines raised the flag over Mount Suribachi. [10] The photo served as a source of inspiration and was thought by many to signify what America was fighting for. Upon publication of the photograph and caption, support for the war skyrocketed. The image was used many times and, as a poster for the 7th War Bond Drive, it helped finance the war. Until photographs surfaced of the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jewish people during World War II, few people knew the extent of the suffering faced by the Jewish people at the hands of their Nazi oppressors. [11] These photos because necessary testaments to history by encouraging the recognition and support of the new State of Israel, helping to bring some of those responsible for war crimes to justice, and serving as a reminder that persecution cannot be tolerated.

Photojournalism played a prominent role in deciding the outcome of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential election in 1960. Television provided a new format for photojournalism. Four presidential debates were held and for the first time on television. John Kennedy was trailing before the first debate. A newcomer, he was not as well known as his opponent, Vice -President, Richard Nixon. It was a live broadcast and Nixon having been recently ill, appeared pale, nervous and sweaty [12] . After the debates took place, a poll showed that “6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone.” [13] While “more than half of all voters reported that the ‘Great Debates’ had influenced their opinion” [14] . At the end of the televised debates Kennedy managed to take the lead. These statistics show the influence visual representations can have when making decisions.

The end of the Vietnam War was brought about with the help of photojournalists who exposed the misconceptions under which the war was fought. The coverage of demonstrations and protests in American cities and towns brought the war and its unpopularity to light. These protests eventually culminated with the Kent State massacre when a group of students were fired upon by National Guardsmen. The photo, “the Kent State Riots” [15] taken by John Filo, shows a distraught woman crying over the body of a demonstrator. This photo inspired rage and set off riots across college campuses nationwide. People were furious with the government, and what they saw as failure by the presidential administration to mediate the growing tensions.

As the unrest at home threatened to end America’s involvement in Vietnam, new photos were released that further shocked the public. In February of 1968, Edward Adams shot a photograph of a North Vietnamese terrorist at the moment of his execution by the Saigon Chief of Police. [16] The photo supported the notion by some, of Americans and her allies committing heinous crimes. Interestingly, on the front page of The New York Times, February 2, 1968 edition, to ‘balance’ the impact of the execution, a smaller photograph of a dead child killed by the North Vietnamese was placed. Photos like these dealt a serious blow to the morale of Americans who began to question the moral authority of America and its soldiers and Vietnam as a lost cause. Support for the war dwindled and with that, came the end of the war.

Today everyone is a photojournalist. The rise of new technology, particularly in the last decade, has provided the opportunity for everyone to be their own informant of the events surrounding them. There is no longer a reliance on the professional photojournalist. Now, people can decide for themselves what to believe or what not to believe and that has allowed movements such as those recently seen in Egypt [17] . The internet has allowed people to share pictures and ideas which encourage people to call for change. In the Middle East, news and photographs from Tunisia have helped unify protesters under the common goal of reforming their governments for the better.

Not only does photojournalism provide a historical perspective, it is also a source of inspiration and action. Photojournalism offers landmarks of a time and a place in our world with the power to change our perspective of the unknown. When we gain a new perspective, we gain the power to spearhead change within our own society.


Citation 4

Mathew Brady, photographer, Dead Soldiers – Antietam

Citation 5

Dorthea Lange. Photograph, Migrant Mother. 1936

Citation 6

Arthur Sasse, UPI photographer, Einstein with his Tongue Out, March 14, 1951

Citation 7

Life Magazine. Photograph, Audie Murphy: Most Decorated Soldier, 1945. San Antonio, Texas

Citation 10

Joe Rosenthal. Photograph, Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima. February 23, 1945.

Citation 11

James Myers. Photograph, Lager Nordhousen Concentration Camp, 1945

Citation 12

Associated Press. Photograph, Kennedy versus Nixon TV Debates, Ft. Knox Kentucky. 1960

Citation 15

John Filo. Photograph, Kent State Massacre, May 4 1970.

Citation 16

Edward Adams. Photograph, Saigon Execution. February 1968

Eddie Adams/AP/The New York Times. Caption reads: “Guerrilla dies: Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Leon, national police chief, executes man identified as a Vietcong terrorist in Saigon. Man wore civilian dress and had a pistol. A picture sequence of the execution is on page 12.”

Citation 17

Photograph, Storm’s Eye, Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2011

Caption Reads: “Storm’s Eye: Anti-government protesters guard a rack of stones in Cairo’s Tabir Square which was quiet as regime supporters held back.”

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