OpenDemocracy.net, by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum, October 31, 2016
Activestills, a photography collective operating in Palestine/Israel, view the photographic act not just as witnessing, but as tantamount to the act of protest itself.
What is now termed “visual activism,” which includes “activist” or “struggle” photography, can be seen as offering a response to the radical critique leveled at photojournalism and documentary photography in the 1980s by critics such as Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. These critics argued that by focusing on the condition of victimhood — and the empathy it was to intended to arouse in the viewer — documentary photography was complicit in the liberal politics of the day, and completely divorced from any social reform agenda or revolutionary politics.
Within the discourse about documentary photography, the focus was either on the “brave photographer,” or on the feelings of the spectator, but not on the subject of the photograph. This condition has led to the constitution of a passive viewer and perpetuated existing power relations in which information about a group of powerless people was addressed to the socially powerful.
In this way documentary photography failed to point out and address the economic, social, and political structures and conditions that enabled inequality in the first place. The shift from “classic” photojournalism to visual activism can be articulated as a radical change: from the documentation of destitution to the visualisation of political agency, and of social relationships and networks that underlie the activities of struggling and protesting communities.