When we think of history and how dry it may appear as a subject to some, what role do visuals play in increasing genuine interest and cultivating understanding of things that have happened?
I myself have always had a strong interest in history, and as such, never truly considered the importance visuals may play in generating interest for those who may find it an uninteresting subject in general, until I came across the new historical HBO TV mini series "Chernobyl" (2019), which made me stop for a moment after watching it and process how the series affected me and how meticulously planned and researched visuals can be game-changers in helping us understand our history better.
The horrific accident that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986 "is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties," and yet, in my personal experience, it was a topic that was barely touched on in history class; I had read and learned about it beforehand, but the impact from actually seeing it on a TV screen, compared to black ink in a history book, is incomparable.
Director Johan Renck, coming originally from a photography and editing background himself, had primarily worked with fictional stories in his career, and as such, this heavily factual series gave him a challenge of translating the magnitude of the actual tragedy into five manageable episodes for the viewers to enjoy. Seeing as photography is important to Renck, it came so natural to place emphasis on how an image makes the viewer feel, more so than for aesthetic purposes, which subsequently transpired in the video work for this series.
The thorough research that had gone into planning and filming this series truly paid off, because everything I saw on the TV screen felt very real and made me feel like I was actually experiencing it all. As a photographer myself, I have come across many life-changing photographic projects that use stills as a way to raise awareness about a particular issue or scene. However, I had never considered the impact video can bring to the wider audience, especially when it comes to generating interest in history and other topics that may not appeal to most.
For those struggling to put the facts and visuals together, documentary photography accompanied with words can be a godsend. But, when you see a beautifully executed TV series that pulls you right back to 1986, it suddenly becomes real. Suddenly, it's not three paragraphs you've read in a history book and forgotten about immediately. Suddenly, it becomes so real, so felt, and so recent. Listening, seeing, and immersing yourself in this is a strong reminder that these are people's lives, not just data in someone's report; these are generations so close to ours and a land that's not that far away for many of us.
Seeing the empty bedrooms and all the toys that didn't fit in the suitcase being left behind, the eerie remnants of the history of families and the years they never got to live in the place they called home, the effects the radiation had on one's body and the consequent impact on their families is uncomfortable, but if stills or video make you feel it, it has already fulfilled what it set out to do.
Visuals, be it a realistic movie or photographs of the real thing, are so powerful. History can be twisted and turned in every which way depending on who's looking at it, but at the same time, there are things that will transpire in photographs and video material regardless: pain, suffering, joy, humanity. And, if history is not your thing at all, you still get to enjoy a captivating story. You don't need to remember the names, the dates, or the technical facts; just experience feeling it all in the comfort of your own home.
Do you think powerful visuals have the ability to change how we view history or at least to increase interest?