Photography as a tool for change

As documentary storytellers we are uniquely placed to inform and influence through the work we produce. However, our practice should not be limited to simply sharing stories – doing little else but informing others. Instead, we should make an active attempt to support meaningful change directly and empower our audience to act. Now more than ever we should all use our work as a form of activism.

Photography as a tool for change - Documentary Storytellers
Portrait from a project exploring the activities of people fighting to reduce the amount of edible food needlessly going to waste © Chris King

The way we perceive and engage with the people and world around us is built upon the stories we tell ourselves. Our cultures are built on stories around meaning, value, purpose, and identity. We are at a point in time that requires cultural and systemic change within our industrialised societies – a seismic shift in how we both function as individuals and the systems we sustain and prop up within our societies. That shift needs to be rapid and profound if we are to avert death, destruction, and suffering on a scale currently unimaginable as a result of the unfolding climate crisis and all the crises that will inevitably spawn from it.

That might sound sensationalist and conjecture, but if the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shown us anything, it’s that our systems and societies lack the capacity to function effectively outside of very narrow parameters, and all but the most minor of shocks will cause immense disruption and loss of life and livelihoods. They are also engineered to benefit a few at the expense of the majority. What lies on the horizon, and is accelerating rapidly towards us, falls well outside existing parameters for maintaining good health and a decent standard of living for many of the citizens of existing societies. And, much like pandemics and wars, without the political will to act, which itself can be influenced to a degree by the will of the people, great suffering will arise.

To change a culture, we must tell different stories and nurture different narratives. That’s where we as documentary storytellers can play a critical role – we can be the people ensuring the voices of those at the frontline of an issue get heard.

We each have our own reason for first picking up a camera. Years ago, when I bought my first 35mm film SLR camera – a second-hand Nikon F80 on eBay, I did so out of a desire to learn photography so I could go out into the world to document and share stories of injustices I felt deserved greater attention. Having such a driver is far from being unique, but what it means is that for me the camera is a tool – a means to an end, albeit one that I really enjoy using and experimenting with. Consequently, I’ve never really engaged deeply with photography as an art form, or a means of self-expression, but instead as a means of communication – as a tool for documenting the world around me and sharing the stories and voices of others.

I’m driven by a desire to have meaningful, positive impact, and lead with the story. I focus on how I want to represent it and the messages I want to communicate. Months before I’ve taken the first shot, I start reading books, articles, and academic papers, as well as watch videos and listen to podcasts on the subject I intend to explore. I prioritise having a foundational knowledge that will allow me to engage in a constructive manner with those who are already immersed in the subject. The research I carry out informs the who, what, why, when, where and how of the project.

At no point do I make a shot list or nurture preconceived ideas of what I’m going to witness. However, after each shoot, as I gain a better understanding of the circumstances and dynamics of a situation, and as my relationships with the people I’m documenting deepen, I reflect on the best way of visually communicating the issue in as complete and accurate a manner as possible. It’s important that at all times we enter into a story conscious of our own biases and the power dynamic that invariably exists between us and the people we are documenting – striving at all times to minimise the impact and influence of both. We must be conscious of the potential to perpetuate destructive narratives that have historically been sustained due to the colonial mindset that has been rooted in so much of the visual representation of others. This is something I explore in greater detail in: The power and pitfalls of human stories.

Visual representation of an issue can be incredibly powerful, but on its own – particularly if relying on stills imagery – may not be the most effective means of engaging an audience on a subject. This is particularly true for complex, multi-layered issues. Knowing the limitations of visually representing an issue and being aware of the challenges and limitations to engaging people and affecting change when relying on conventional, mainstream media, we need to engage with the issue more broadly if we want to have meaningful impact, and use what tools and opportunities we have available to us to amplify the stories, and help maximise the impact we and our work has.

For me personally, this has led to producing multimedia slideshows – combining stills with audio testimony and ambient sounds – as well as short videos. I’ve also chosen to go beyond visual representation and produced podcasts, built dedicated websites, written articles, and given talks and presentations to local and international audiences. I’m under no illusion that my work barely moves the needle in terms of helping create the change I want to see, but, I know it all contributes in some way, no matter how small.

As documentary storytellers, we should be sharing the work we produce in a way that is not limited to it being appreciated and admired for its visual aesthetic. We must strive to give our work a life beyond the pages of a newspaper or magazine, or the walls of a gallery, in a way that empowers and inspires audiences to take meaningful action. We must each of us strive to become active participants in creating meaningful, positive change on the subjects we explore.

Bearing witness to injustices comes with a responsibility, and to remain silent in the face of an injustice of any sort makes us complicit in it. It’s not sufficient to say we don’t support something, but instead we should be actively declaring that we are against it, and doing whatever we can to challenge the injustice we are witnessing from being carried out. It’s not enough, for instance, to say you care about the environment, climate change, animal welfare, or about the plight of the bees – we must stand up, use our voices and whatever privileges we might have at our disposal, to actively challenge and oppose destructive acts and injustices.

To address the current and historical biases in visual storytelling and representation of certain communities, we must tell more stories from a greater diversity of perspectives, so that the truth can no longer be ignored or buried. We must also change the way in which we approach and tell stories. We must tell more human-centric stories so that people can relate more easily to what is being communicated, but do so in a way that does not maintain existing stereotypes and deep, destructive narratives. We must tell more solutions-focused stories to generate hope and move away from shaming people. And, most importantly, we must strive to ensure all these stories have a life beyond the pages of mainstream press and contribute as best they can to the movement for change.

Not every project we explore as documentary storytellers has to actively contribute to something larger, but we live in an incredibly dynamic and disruptive period for humanity and all life on Earth. We are uniquely placed to shed light into the shadows created by vested interests and systems that benefit a few at the expense of the many, and show people a reality they might not otherwise be aware of. Our work may never be the direct instigator of change, but it can still contribute in a meaningful way by contributing to a wider campaign for change – to help create a different, more just, narrative.

So, if you’re not already doing so, I implore you to consider doing more than just producing work with the aim of getting it published somewhere, and instead give it a life beyond the pages of established publications – create a website for it, create a series of podcasts, do guest blog posts, organise talks and discussions – do what you can to ensure the work is seen and the story talked about, and strive to maximise its impact. This is particularly true of those stories the mainstream publications reject – deeming them as not ‘newsworthy’.

We all need to become more active in seeking positive change – now is not the time for fence sitting, now is the time to stand up and share your voice far and wide along with the voices of those whom you document. Everything we do has an impact and consequences. Everything we do is political, whether we acknowledge it or not. Therefore, every story we choose to explore is either perpetuating the navel-gazing that industrialised societies have mastered, or inspiring people to look up, stand up, and act.

Each of us, no matter where we are in our journey as documentary storytellers, has an audience – large or small. We each have a platform – a voice – which we can use to inform, influence, and inspire others. Let’s not be passive observers. Let’s not be mere messengers. Let’s actively support and participate in movements for individual and systemic change for the good of all. Let’s become activists.


Chris King

From a young age I’ve been conscious of the impact we humans were having on the world around us. Growing up in Northern Ireland during a time of conflict, and reading about the many historical and existing struggles by communities across the globe for self-determination and freedom from exploitation, I was acutely aware of the harm we humans can exact on one other. In my art class at school in the early 90s, when I was about 14, I created a drawing of a human hand crushing the Earth, with chunks falling off revealing the core, to represent the destruction we humans are inflicting on the Earth – not very subtle, I know! I went on to work for a number of environmental and social justice organisations in various capacities, working throughout the Global North and the Global South. As a professional photographer and video producer, I’ve been documenting issues related to the food system and climate change for many years. I really want to have greater positive impact on these issues, and support others in maximising the impact they have on the issues they explore.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and if you have anything you would like to share, challenge, or feedback on, please do get in touch via email, I’d love to hear from you – [email protected]