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Curious Frame - Issue #28 Photography & Social Change

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #28 Photography & Social Change
By Leanne Staples • Issue #28 • View online
Does photography influence culture or does culture influence photography? The question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? is a question that we may never be able to truly answer.
That said, the two are inseparable. What we do know is that photography’s influence on how we live our lives is so fundamental that it is difficult to imagine how we could have arrived where we are without photography.
So this issue of Curious Frame is about how photography has influenced social justice and has changed how we are experiencing the world more than ever. We are witnessing a major shift in social consciousness the likes of which may have never been seen before.
Photography has played a large role in these changes. We have a rare opportunity to witness history in the making. It has been made so through a combination of photography, digital cameras, the internet and social media.
There’s a glitch in this page which I cannot figure out how to fix. The line “Danny Lyon is an incredi” shouldn’t be there. Just ignore it.
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Readers comments:
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required.
One reader wrote about the previous issue:
Very insightful writing and examples. But, when do you sleep? Your obsession is our gain. Thanks!
Thank you! Curious Frame represents a large portion of my waking life as it is influenced by everything that I do. But don’t worry, I rarely miss a good night’s sleep!
Another reader wrote:
Newsletter is wonderful. Why do you like shooting without looking at the screen?
In the previous issue, I wrote “I quite like doing what I call lift and shoot or shooting from the hip while ignoring the preview screen on the camera”
The reason for my liking to shoot without looking at the screen is that it emphasizes the element of chance in street photography and creativity in general.
Chance is a topic that will be discussed in an upcoming issue of this newsletter.
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Photography & Social Change
Me at the Get Clean for Gene (McCarthy) Campaign, 1968.
Me at the Get Clean for Gene (McCarthy) Campaign, 1968.
I’ve been saying for quite a few years now that I think that photography can change the world, one photo at a time. I say that specifically in the context of street photography. 
While photojournalists and documentary photographers provide us with all kinds of valuable information about things that we wouldn’t know about otherwise, they typically go out with the intention to shoot something specific. 
I believe photographing people forces an interest in lives other than our own, allowing an opportunity to see ourselves reflected in someone else. Curran Hatleberg
Street photography on the other hand is spontaneous. You don’t know in advance what you’ll find, you head out on a journey without any preconceived notions. 
The people that I have a momentary eye contact with through the act of shooting street photography aren’t even in my 6 degrees of separation as it is called. 
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon or Bacon's Law is a parlor game where players challenge each other to arbitrarily choose an actor and then connect them to another actor via a film that both actors have appeared in together, repeating this process to try and find the shortest path that ultimately leads to prolific American actor Kevin Bacon. It rests on the assumption that anyone involved in the Hollywood film industry can be linked through their film roles to Bacon within six steps. The game's name is a reference to "six degrees of separation", a concept which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon or Bacon's Law is a parlor game where players challenge each other to arbitrarily choose an actor and then connect them to another actor via a film that both actors have appeared in together, repeating this process to try and find the shortest path that ultimately leads to prolific American actor Kevin Bacon. It rests on the assumption that anyone involved in the Hollywood film industry can be linked through their film roles to Bacon within six steps. The game's name is a reference to "six degrees of separation", a concept which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart.
In case you aren’t familiar with the idea of 6 degrees of separation, Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people on average are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other. As a result, a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
I don’t go out shooting thinking that today I’m going to change the world. No no no. On a good day I hope to have a positive influence on the people that I am mentoring in photography and the people that I come in contact with. everywhere that I go.
We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically. Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Whether we believe in the concept of us all being connected and the idea of 6 degrees of separation or not, we are always having an influence on people around us. So we can choose how we are going to treat the people we encounter. This is especially true of street photography. 
Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 August 1968, Washington DC - I Have a Dream speech.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 August 1968, Washington DC - I Have a Dream speech.
The time is always right to do the right thing. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
While you can say that I’m a dreamer, that’s okay with me. I’m a helpless optimist. It’s who I am. But I’m not the only dreamer.
When I was young, I remember seeing photos of Martin Luther King Jr, and his speeches and protests. But they were far from my everyday life. They were abstract concepts.
They were in some respects similar to seeing a photo of a man on the moon. Way out there in outer space. A photo was a mystery or a dream. It’s not always easy to understand images without a context and a connection. 
Black Lives Matter protest, New York City, 18 July 2020.
Black Lives Matter protest, New York City, 18 July 2020.
With the arrival of the internet, digital photography and social media we can all be on the same page simultaneously. We can’t always believe everything we see and hear and it is always important that we always consider the facts and not just opinions. 
Most of the world now knows who George Floyd was. They also know what he looked like. The front page of the New York Times headline on Sunday 25 April read “Key to Chauvin verdict was humanizing Floyd.” 
A big part of humanizing George Floyd was seeing the image of him everywhere and all the time. He was no longer an abstract idea. Along with the image of him carried by protesters and on the covers of magazines and newspapers around the world was the say their names chanting that went on in all the marches for justice. 
Dorothea Lange, A farm mother awaits evacuation bus. Centerville, California, 1942. Japanese internment.
Dorothea Lange, A farm mother awaits evacuation bus. Centerville, California, 1942. Japanese internment.
The history of social change has relied on photography to illustrate the wrongs in society of people who have been discriminated against. It has a long history.
Before the internet and the rapid transmission of digital images to everyone everywhere around the world at lightening speed, the impact of a single photo was lessened as fewer people would have the opportunity to see it.
The sheer repetition of seeing the same image of George Floyd over and over again everywhere around the world is a key element in humanizing him.
Jacob Riis, Street children sleep near a grate for warmth on Mulberry Street. Circa 1890-1895. How the Other Half Lives.
Jacob Riis, Street children sleep near a grate for warmth on Mulberry Street. Circa 1890-1895. How the Other Half Lives.
Danny Lyon is an incredi
Jacob Riis was a pioneer in the use of photography as an agent of social reform, he did a series of exposés on slum conditions on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which led him to view photography as a way of communicating the need for slum reform to the public. 
While Jacob Riis shocked the world with his photos of extreme poverty and deplorable living conditions, they didn’t have the same kind of reach as photography does now.
Crowds along the funeral route of the four girls murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 1963 / Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1964–62. All photographs by Danny Lyon, from The Seventh Dog.
Crowds along the funeral route of the four girls murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 1963 / Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1964–62. All photographs by Danny Lyon, from The Seventh Dog.
The pictures do not ask you to help these people, but something much more difficult; to be briefly, intensely aware of their existence, an existence as real and significant as your own. Danny Lyon
Danny Lyon is an incredible photographer and he has captured many civil rights demonstrations as well as a number of important social issues of inequality.
You can see Lyon’s work in museums and books and even on Instagram! While we can learn much through looking at his photos and the photos of documentarians, the piece that is often missing is the call to action.
Take my picture, New York City, 28 October 2020. Taken during a street photography workshop.
Take my picture, New York City, 28 October 2020. Taken during a street photography workshop.
While we can’t expect that all social justice issues will begin to be resolved as a result of one incident in which the voices of the people are heard and their voices make a difference.
The above photo is of a very good natured homeless man that appeared in front of our cameras during a street photography workshop. Yes, he wanted money. But he also wanted us to take his photo. He wanted to be part of something.
So we took a few photos of him. We gave him money though I don’t recall him actually asking for it. You could say that we made a positive contribution to the life of a person that we encountered on the street.
Get up, Stand up #14, New York City, June 2020
Get up, Stand up #14, New York City, June 2020
We all have our own social justice issues that are important to us. And we do what we can to support those issues. We also have our own abilities in how we can do something to create positive change in the world.
Through my street photography and art, I do what I can. That said, the fight for social justice is an ongoing battle and one in which we have to accept that we are just one person influencing others.
In David Levi Strauss’ book Photography and Belief, he wrote that the phrase seeing is believing originated from a quote by Cervantes that “a proverb is a short sentence based on a long experience.”
Perhaps we can say that a single photo is like Cervantes’ proverb. A single photo can contain a long experience in it that we can find meaning in through our own experiences.
Olivia Locher, 2017. In Alabama it is illegal to Have an Ice Cream Cone in Your Back Pocket at All Times. From her series I Fought the Law.
Olivia Locher, 2017. In Alabama it is illegal to Have an Ice Cream Cone in Your Back Pocket at All Times. From her series I Fought the Law.
So not to leave you on a sour note, there are many methods of pointing out silly laws and social injustices in the world. So we get to choose those things that are important to us in our lives.
Your photography can somehow reflect what is important to you in life. Humor can be one of the things that you utilize to illustrate what’s important to you.
I’d love to hear about what’s important to you in your photography and/or how photography can illustrate the social justice issues that you are concerned with.
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Further viewing:
Expanding the Circle: The Engaged Photographer
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You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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