Perpetual Revolution of Social Change

The International Center of Photography’s Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change was a series of exhibitions that examined the digital portrayal of present social issues in relation to the real world. I have toured, and will discuss, the following exhibitions: Climate Changes, Flood: Refugees and Representation, and Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered. These exhibitions all included images and videos from social media in addition to older black-and-white images and their influences on social/political changes in the past and present. The title itself, “Perpetual Revolution”, indicated that social issues (i.e. refugee crisis, Black Lives Matter) are constantly evolving and had always been a part of history. However, images and videos are a recent form of documentation of these movements, the beginning of photography started around the late 19th century. The Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change exhibition inferred that the use of photography and filmography had accelerated the pace of social movements by connecting people with events happening around the world through almost instantaneous access to a barrage of images and videos.

The Climate Changes portion of the exhibition displayed a crucial social and environmental issue regarding global warming and its effects. One video in particular stood out amongst the still and moving images, Chasing Ice by James Balog. This video, which was projected on the wall, captured the moment of a glacier receding further into the land, the chaos and destruction that occurred as the glacier melts. The video began with Balog conversing with a colleague about the ice, it seemed that there have not been any movement for a while. Suddenly there were a cascade of movement, large chunks of ice breaking down and water gushing out, becoming a stream amongst the falling ice. The video focused and various areas of the ice melts until eventually, the portion of ice that disappeared was the size of the lower half of Manhattan. It was not clear whether the ice melt happened as fast as it was portrayed or if video was on a time lapse. However, the sound of ice breaking apart and size of the video occupying an entire wall can cause a visceral reaction from the viewers, almost as if they were actual in front a large land ice being broken down piece by piece. Sontag discussed that photography, in this case filmography, can be used as an evidence to quell doubts about whether an event had taken place (Sontag n.d.). This video captured evidence of the negative effect of climate change and global warming, land ice melting causes a rise in sea level which amplifies flooding and displaces coastal communities across the globe. This video can make people feel helpless in the face of global warming, which is becoming a runaway train. Alternatively, it can also motivate people into taking actions for environmental justice and preservation.

The Flood: Refugees and Representation section of the exhibition displayed images of refugee escaping from various situations from the past to the present. One black-and-white photo by Robert Capa shows refugees walking along a long road in 1939, during World War II. The desolate and foggy background suggests they are escaping from a dangerous event and the somber expression of the woman in the front of the line provides further evidence that this is a bleak and desolate time for the people in the photos. John Szarkowski mentions in his book, The Photographer’s Eye, that the subject in the real world versus the photo show different realities (Szarkowski n.d.). This is because the subject in the photo can be manipulated by the photographer, in this case, Capa framed the photo to have the refugees walking down a long road as opposed to a zoomed out photo that only shows the refugees in the corner. The frame, in addition to details, is important in expressing the meaning the artist intended to express (Szarkowski n.d.). There were a lot use of lines in the photo, the diagonal line of the people and the road both made it seem as though the people in the photo are walking towards the viewers. In addition, the contrast between the top half (light sky) and bottom half (the people and surroundings) brought the viewer’s attention to the procession of refugees.

Back in the 1930s, it would have taken a large amount of time for this photo to be developed, delivered to America, and be printed into millions of magazines or newspaper for circulation. In contrast, present day people have access to millions of images of crisis from across the globe, largely because almost everyone have access to cameras through their smartphones. Anyone can take a photo or video and upload it through social media. The Flood: Refugees and Representation section of the exhibition had many still and moving images that portrayed poignant moments in the Syrian refugee crisis. One particular art piece was a table filled with sand arranged in hills and valleys by the artist. Thousands of images of the Syrian refugee crisis were pulled from various sources (social media, magazines, etc.) and projected on the table full of sand. This piece demonstrated the purpose of the exhibition, to explore how people are constantly showered with a barrage of images that may or may not be related to a certain social issue. This art piece at some point had shown a single image of the drowned Syrian boy, an image most people would be familiar with through social media. The topography of the sand created a depth in the two dimension photo, making it seem as though the boy was right in front of us. He was shown to have washed up on the beach, a place for leisure tainted by the death of a little boy who was fleeing from a war. The drown boy was faced down in the sand, truly portraying that he is dead and not some carefree boy sleeping under the sun.

The Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered section of the exhibition displayed still and moving images from the past to the present. One picture in particular stood out, it was an image of a 2015 Times magazine cover with a picture of the 1968 Times magazine cover. This image had a single and unarmed black man running from dozens of police in armor and batons. In this image, the year 1968 was crossed off with a red marker and the year 2015 was written just above. This related the current Black rights movement to the past, showing that we are still fighting this battle even in the new millennium. This image reminded people that the Black Lives Matter movement is not a new social issue, it is an existing social issue that was brought to light in recent police shootings and abuse of unarmed black people. The photo itself was framed to only capture the policemen running after one man. The light color of the sky and road contrasted with the dark color of the police armors and clothing. These details allowed the people in the image become the focal point and emphasized the severity of the situation. In addition, the multiple screens of social media images regarding the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the purpose of the exhibit, virtual tools (i.e. social media) had pushed and accelerated the #BlackLivesMatter movement because people now had instantaneous access to these images and can share them with others just as fast.

The International Center of Photography’s Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change is an exhibition that explored the relation between the image and the chaotic world it mirrored. The land ice melt, refugee images, and Time magazine image had shown that the Climate Change, Flood: Refugees and Representation, and Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered  are social issues currently relevant. The evolution of filmography and photography had shown that these issues are in a perpetual revolution, from the past to the present and most likely the future.

Works Cited

Sontag, Susan. “Susan Sontag.” Susan Sontag. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Szarkowski, John. “John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye.” John Szarkowski, The Photogra

pher’s Eye. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017. <http://www.jnevins.com/szarkowskireading.htm&gt;.

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