Your Photography Is Political

Your Photography Is Political

We live in times of turmoil. The old fixed orders of the post-World-War-II globe have lately been called into question in new and unexpected ways. People are more engaged in politics than ever before during most of our lifetimes. Photography has always been a very political art form, and not simply in the obvious ways. You may not think that your images are political because they do not showcase political issues. But even if they don't do that, they still say something in the political sphere. As we all struggle to be the best photographers we can be, none of us should forget that, when taking and making images, we always also make statements.

I have a suspicion. That you might say: "But I'm not a political photographer! I don't document politicians on the campaign trail, I don't roam protests or the halls of power. I don't seek out war zones or show the squalor of slums. I take portraits. I document wedding days. I create dream worlds for clients in advertising. Landscapes of mountains and the sea and the setting sun. I have my personal projects. I travel. I make my own whatever image I catch in the street. I take family pictures and post them on Facebook. Stay away with your politics. Let me do my job, fulfill my orders. Let me be a photographer, a purveyor only of my services and an expert in my tools and my process. Leave me that. It's all it is. Nothing more."

The Photographic Is Political

Photography, however, is always a deliberate act. One of including and excluding, of focusing and defocusing. Of picking and cropping, coloring, fixing, desaturating. Of making choices. In the 1970s, the fact that our private lives and the world of politics are always intertwined, whether we want or not, found expression in the slogan "the personal is political." Political decisions affect every life, be they in the lofty sphere of international diplomacy, in the grit-and-grind of lawmaking on all levels, or simply in accepting or denouncing what currently takes the mantle of official policy.

Under the Bridge

Under the Bridge, Cologne

The photographic, too is political. It's political when a wedding photographer puts the happy couple in poses and situations well-rehearsed down through the generations: it suggests stability, it idealizes a certain kind of relationship over all others. Imagine a generic wedding photo. You have something very specific in mind. Not because that specific presentation is the only natural one, the only one out of millions of choices in hairstyles and clothing and facial expressions and body language that needed to somehow happen for it to be a classic wedding portrait. It became that, in culture. It has a history.

If a photographer then deconstructs this image by using unexpected props, angles, or capturing nonstandard poses and expressions, that is also a political act. One that says that this couple is different, wants to be different. It is perhaps an expression emphasizing the individual and not the tradition. The same is true if the photographer portrays queer couples, or those from different races or religious backgrounds and inserts them into those same standard situations where only a few decades or years ago they would not have been expected. That, too is a political act. The first constructs a standard, the second questions it at the same time that it rebuilds it into something different. Sometimes this is done with deliberation and on purpose. Often it is done without such thoughts, but it happens nonetheless. And it matters nonetheless.

Jackie Kennedy

Jackie Kennedy Throwing the Bouquet. Image by Toni Frissell.

Making Meaning

In the 1970s, too, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsored photographers to document the American environment. Mindful of the mission of the EPA, many accomplished photojournalists roamed the United States. As part of the "Documerica" project, they submitted pictures of oil spills, nuclear power plants, dumps, highways, and environmental destruction. This was openly and officially political. The agency tasked with protecting the environment sought to document why it itself was needed.

It was not the only way in which the resulting images were political, though. Not all photographers constructed their job to mean that they should seek out, in a narrow way, environmental destruction. Many also showed glimpses into the worlds and lives of people. Of powerful, of poor, of people of all races and creeds. They considered the homes and places of work and worship of ordinary Americans an environment worth documenting. That in itself was a political act: to bear witness and show how things looked at a certain place during a certain time, so there could be no mistaking that this had not happened. So that those moments and people could not be erased.


The Documerica project documented the environment in the 1970s. Image by Charles O'Rear.

Seeing Is Believing

Photography is also political because the very choice of making things seen or leaving them unseen is political. It's important what you choose to show, either in picking a frame or in picking a subject. For Ansel Adams, an ardent environmentalist, presenting the beauty of natural landscapes was making a statement about their value, their intrinsic worth for humanity and culture. Social documentary photographers of the time, however, accused him of taking pictures of rocks when the world was obviously concerned with more pressing matters. 

The question here is not whether one side was right and the other wrong. What matters is that merely by choice and contextualization of our photography, we make statements in the public sphere, and those statements always carry with them a kernel of politics. Both sides had their points of view, literally and figuratively, and both sides made their arguments. In that they were political.

Government Shutdown

Government Shutdown, Washington, D.C.

To take an example closer to home: why are model shoots mostly of beautiful, young women? There are just as many men on the globe. Yet, if you were an alien looking at essentially every photo sharing site, you would come away thinking they are a tiny minority. (For an experiment, put "model" in the search bar on any of these sites, including this one, and count how many pictures of young, beautiful women you see and how many pictures of literally any other kind of human).

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But there's also nothing normal or natural about it. It's the result of choices that individuals make, over and over again. No one puts guns to their heads and forces this on them. They do it because they are rewarded for it, by likes or dollars or other forms of recognition. And so they should. We all strive for recognition. To go with that flow is a choice, as is going against it. Neither is automatically the correct one. But if you think about that choice before pressing the shutter button, your images will have more meaning either way. Because what we see we tend to believe, and what we see many times over we have a hard time not believing.

In the Thicket of Culture

There is no outside to the political. Be born, and you're contained in it. Go out into the world, and you're confronted with it. It regulates the cities and the countryside you see without it even being apparent most of the time. It elevates some things and some people and condemns others.

None of this is innocent. Don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean you should call into question every wedding photo, every fashion editorial, every model shoot in which you find the politics just a smidge suspect. Art that doesn't lend itself to criticism isn't likely to make much of an impact. And as with everything, if you only see the political, you also don't see everything that matters. But it's there, just as much as the lighting and the history of art and the ingenious use of technique, it is part of the picture.


Protesters demand the release of political prisoners, early 1920s. Image by Harris & Ewing.

Your professionalism and artistic vision shouldn't be compromised because of some imagined authority deciding that you're now playing in a game you did not think you were in. What would behoove all of us who exert power with a camera, for good and for ill and all in between, though, is to be aware. Be aware that what we do is part of a larger culture, a larger conversation.

The easiest mistake to make is to claim that what one does is not political because it just continues a tradition, because it just does what many others have done before, because it's "what one does." Because one doesn't think of it as political. To make the choice to follow traditions or to go against them is always that: a choice. It may be a hidden one, one that isn't reflected on. But it's always there. Always lurking in the background.

Photography is about those choices. They are not random. Some are technical and based on the availability of time and money. Yet they are also always personal. In the end, your photography is an expression of you, personally. And if the personal is political, then your photography always is, too.

Photo credits: Toni Frissell (Jackie Kennedy), Charles O'Rear (Sunbathers at Huntington Beach), Harris & Ewing (Protesters).

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Anonymous's picture

Someone will always read something into your work that wasn't intended. Being aware of that fact won't change what I do. While reading your article, I was looking for a political statement only because that was the subject of the article. Perhaps your POV comes from your interest in documentaries, which by their nature are taken as political due to the types of information you include or leave out. Being a Historian is obvious.

I don't think that my photography has a political slant to it. Now, I have taken two photos that were political in nature, one for a campaign for coroner and another that has a historical context.
I thought the campaign sign for a coroner was funny for the politician's slogan: "Saving lives". Frankly, the coroner is the last person that one calls in a person's life.
The other has a historical place in history. When the trees lose their leaves near where I live, there is a sign promoting the "John Birch Society". I thought that organization died in the 60's with their "Impeach Earl Warren" campaign. But I googled the organization and they apparently still have members.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

My photography arises out of a love of photography that I have had since I was a small child - a fascination with the creation of two-dimensional images of the things in my life - and it has floated down that stream ever since. These days, it's a mixture of things - a study of light & shade, shapes & relationships, colors & tones - people, places and things in my environment - pets - and the land of my ancestors, France. A recent brief shoot was simply wet weather in my street - another was an Indian lad aged about 5 or 6, who plays cricket in the park where I walk my dog.

Sorry to be argumentative, Torsten, but I can't pin the tail on the donkey - I can't relate politics to any of that, in my head. It's like people who assert that everything we do is selfish - even to the point of saying that being unselfish is selfish, because it indulges the unselfish person.

Anonymous's picture

Everything is political..even the decision as to where you purchase your equipment.

Anonymous's picture

Everything CAN be political.

That an image may be used in a political setting or for a political message does not make it "political".
Flood images from soaked California are being taken now and will be used for Political purposes by some in the future. Does not make them political images.
Go back to school and pay attention in class to sharpen your ability to think critically.

Anonymous's picture

Everything can indeed be political..that's the problem. The image captured without political intent can later be used with political intent. Pretty much impossible to manage that.

Very well written article I just say. However I fail to see how it's of consequence, whether or not it is true? The definition of the word 'political' encompasses a lot of things I agree, (relating to the government or public affairs of a country), however if I were take some landscapes for a private collection, just for the sole purpose of hanging on my wall so I could admire them, how is this political? I'm taking a photograph of a beautiful scene which I want to look at again later on. Sure it could be used for political reasons later on, but for me, in context with this article, it's nothing more than a beautiful scene. How is it political? And if so, why is that important?
Just me 2 cents.

Anonymous's picture

That's right Joe, at least as I see it..we can turn anything and everything to politics. Which then is rather sad to the extent a compelling image isn't created or is witheld

Lorin Duckman's picture

Well thought out. All art is political; some just more.

What someone thinks about someone's art doesn't equal the artist sharing the same view. Some artists simply like the aesthetics of the art they produce. It doesn't have nothing to do with politics or trying to send a message.

Ken Flanagan's picture

My photos are spiritual to me, not political.

Eric Reichbaum's picture

Who shot the first photo, the one with the smokestack?

Gene Daniels. Will check why that didn't make it into the photo credits.