10 Socially Engaged, Iconic Photographs

Black and white photograph, taken by the artist Chien-Chi Chang in New York, USA in 1998. This work shows us immigrants sleeping on the fire escape of a building to escape the heat wave.
Chien-Chi Chang, Immigrants sleeping on the fire escape of a building to escape the heat wave. New York City, USA. 1998

A real weapon of criticism, a socially engaged photograph disturbs, impacts, and questions the viewer. Indeed, its mission is to capture in the greatest transparency a raw truth, the one that will best represent reality without a filter. These photographs, therefore, leave the viewer free to interpret it. It captures, shows, and points silently but also peacefully to a moment, in order to convey a strong message. Many photographers venture daily to the four corners of the earth, or to the corner of their street, where misery, social inequality, and violence punctuate the daily life of some. Artsper has selected 10 socially engaged photographs just for you. From Vietnam to New York and over to Madagascar, discover a different approach to photography!

JR: a tribute to women

Color photograph, taken in Cambodia in 2009 by the street-artist JR. Entitled "28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes", this photograph was taken during an action in Phnom Penh, Peng Panh. It shows us a little boy facing a huge piece of dilapidated wall, on which JR's collage appears: the black and white eyes of a woman. The floor is strewn with garbage. Socially engaging photography.
JR, 28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes, Action in Phnom Penh, Peng Panh, Cambodia, 2009

French street-artist and devoted photographer, JR grew up in the suburbs of Paris. Very early on, the street became the medium of expression and the artist’s favorite playground. His singular artistic signature lies in the monumental dimensions of his anonymous black and white photographs. Exhibited on city roofs, in shantytowns, or on the walls of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, these faces are exposed and impose themselves on us. They in turn become participants in the artist’s creative projects and bearers of his message. These socially engaged portraits address current political and social issues, they also question the notion of identity, the true thread of JR’s work.

The depth that comes from this woman’s gaze prevents us from looking away. We remain like this child, frozen, alone, and impotent, in front of the emotion communicated by this woman through her simple gaze. The photograph comes from an action launched in 2008: “28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes”. In the heart of the Brazilian Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, whole sections of houses are covered with striking faces. JR chooses to pay tribute to women, who occupy a definitive place in our societies but to whom war, religion, and conflicting geopolitics deprive of a normal life.

In 2009, JR decided to extend his project to the borders of Cambodia. He denounced the excessive urban sprawl of the capital, over-development of real estate, and gentrification. He highlighted the daily struggle of these women. Fighting against the expropriation of their living places, such as in the Day Krahorn shantytown, on the edge of Phnom Penh.

Leila Alaoui: an emblem of inconvenient truth

A black and white photograph, taken by Leila Alaoui, of a young boy standing in the middle of the desert, arms folded, facing the camera. A fence separates this child from the photographer. Socially engaging photography.
Leila Alaoui

Sand as far as the eye can see, the immensity of the desert, and this child, alone, standing with his arms folded in front of the camera. The photographer, Leila Alaoui, captures this moment behind a fence of iron bars. Here she seeks to separate and confront two foreign worlds. The first is the Western world, rich, free and possessive, yet passive. The second is the one in which this child lives, the daily life of misery, loneliness, dispossession. It is like the child is locked up, trapped in this arid land, deprived of life and hope. The configuration chosen by the photographer confronts us with the loneliness of this child, but also imposes a distance, a symbol of our inability to intervene. 

Leila Alaoui (1982-2016) is a Franco-Moroccan photographer and video artist, passionate about photography journalism. She is convinced that socially engaged photography can carry a strong message. A message that should question and reflect, in the most authentic way, our society. Her work is mainly based on various social themes such as cultural identities and diversities, the fate of refugees, migration, and displacement of populations. 

Pierrot Men: photography as life’s fragment report

Black and white photograph, taken by Pierrot Men in the city of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar, in 2016, as part of his "Bricks Series". Here, two men continue to shape bricks despite the storm. Socially engaging photography.
Pierrot Men, Brick Series, Fianarantsoa, Madagascar, 2016

The elements that immediately strike us in this socially engaged image are solidarity, unity but above all the dignity of these two men who, despite the storm, continue to work. Here the photographer embodies a reporter, who carefully observes the gestures of these men as if captivated by the authenticity and beauty of the moment. It emanates through these extracts of life, an almost liberating simplicity of living, imbued with a feeling of fullness. 

Madagascar, the native country of the photographer Chang Hong Men, known as Pierrot Men, is for him a nourishing land, which feeds most of his work. Indeed, Pierrot Men’s works are a perfect coexistence between photography journalism and the author’s photographs. They appeal to the sensitivity of the person who deciphers them. Between humanism, humility, and finesse, they tell us about the daily life of these men. A simple life, without artifice, and so far away from our western daily life. 

Taysir Batniji: at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 

Photograph by Taysir Batniji, untitled, included in his collection "Walls of Gaza". Taken in 2001, it is part of a series of 57 color photographs. In this photograph we can see a fabric stretched out on two threads, drying in the sun in the deserted streets of Gaza. Below, two white plastic chairs. Behind, a large white wall, on which one can see portraits of the "disappeared", "martyrs" and "victims". Socially engaging photography.
Taysir Batniji, Untitled (Walls of Gaza), 2001, series of 57 color photographs

2001, Gaza, the first months of the Second Intifada. A fabric stretched out on two threads, drying in the sun in the deserted streets of the city. Underneath, two plastic chairs found refuge, fleeing the unbearable heat. With no sign of life in this socially engaged photograph, humanity is absent. Yet life seems to go on, at least subsist, calmly, almost silently. Behind this large white wall, portraits of those who have “disappeared”, “martyrs” and “victims” are placarded. Slogans and graffiti indicate the suffering of the inhabitants on the walls of Gaza, which have become the only means of information since the First Intifada (1987-1993). Little by little the passage of time erases and tears away these faces, these words, these memories, this hope. The existence of any kind of past and memory disappears as if swept away by time. 

Taysir Batniji is a Franco-Palestinian photographer. Shared in this geographical middle ground, he draws his inspiration from his subjective history. His work reveals with fragility and poetry the painful history into which his country, Palestine, has sunk. This series of photographs “Gaza Walls” that he began in 2001, pinpoints this phenomenon of “double disappearance”: that of men and that of memory.

Samuel Cueto: shedding light on the “invisible”

Black and white photograph, taken by Samuel Cueto in 2018, entitled "Dreamer". A young teenager is sitting in front of a sewing machine, looking lost and dreaming. Socially engaging photography.
Samuel Cueto, Dreamer, 2018

“Dreamer” is the title chosen by Samuel Cueto, a street portraitist, to illustrate this photograph. It is this unattainable, almost utopian dream for a better life that the photographer captures. Indeed, Samuel Cueto’s portraits bear witness to the situation of those left behind. The invisible who live far from everything, far from the city, far from hope. Coming from the working-class neighborhoods of this “forgotten” France, Samuel Cueto lets an autobiographical touch shine through his work but also pays homage to these damaged and authentic beings that no one seems to pay attention to anymore. 

The lost and weary gaze of this young man seems suspended in time. His bewilderment and the absence in his gaze give an impression of timelessness to the scene. This “man-child” still appears innocent, yet there is a certain maturity and a heavy concern about a better future. Both sad and unjust, the reality of the working-class neighborhoods can be read in this photograph. Samuel Cueto emphasizes current issues: the acceptance of ‘the other’ in his difference, his life experience, and his origins. His work echoes the notion of determinism and social destiny. Family heritage confines us to a life that we do not choose, which prevents us from evolving in the social hierarchy. 

Carolyne Drake: stop the stereotype by taking pictures 

Color photograph, taken by Carolyn Drake, of a volunteer returning a pink and green cart in the parking lot of the "99 cents" store on Sonoma Boulevard. Socially engaged photography.
Carolyn Drake, Volunteer brings a cart to the 99-cent store parking lot on Sonoma Blvd

North American photographer Carolyne Drake has always been captivated by the notion of “community”. By exploring through her camera the co-dependencies that govern a group of people, she learned to analyze their interactions, but also the connections and barriers that could unite and separate people or places. In 2014, she will return to her hometown, Vallejo, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Once the capital of California, the 1996 closure of the Île Mare shipyard, an indispensable factor in the city’s economic dynamism, led to years of bankruptcy and misery. In 2014, it will begin a long-term project that will question our approach to the idea of community.

A volunteer carries a cart back to the parking lot. We can interpret this photograph in different ways, which makes the work done by Carolyne Drake very interesting. We can think of it as a metaphor for the economic and social imprisonment of this man. The wagon would come to prevent him from moving forward, from being free of his actions. Here, Carolyne Drake questions our tendency to stigmatize an individual or a community due to its historical or economic past. Through this cliché, she represents the prejudices linked to her city, Vallejo. She also offers us a second, more optimistic reading about the community that lives there and that has fought to continue to live there. 

Newsha Tavakolian: mirroring infernal reality

Color photograph, taken by Newsha Tavakolian, in the capital of Iran, Tehran. On this parking lot, a young woman covered with her black hijab is looking at us. A Plexiglas cube encloses her face. Behind her, a building, a car, and in the distance the desert and the mountains. Socially engaging photography.
Newsha Tavakolian, Tehran, Iran

This Iranian woman, stands alone, in the middle of a deserted parking lot. A Plexiglas cube encloses her face covered with a black hijab. The contrast between the extent of the parking lot, which extends into the immensity of the desert that is hinted at behind it, and the minimal size of the cube, underlines the isolation of this woman, the incoherence and illogicality of her condition. Her gaze seems punctuated by a feeling of discouragement. As if she has become amorphous, alien to her own situation. The socially engaged photographer Newsha Tavakolian questions here with sensitivity, the notion of choice, of confinement. These women, deprived of a voice and of freedom, are imprisoned in a life that they did not choose but that they still suffer through, one that they no longer want to accept or tolerate. 

Newsha Tavakolian, an Iranian photographer, is known for her photojournalistic work. She has covered the struggle led by women in the guerrillas in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and Colombia, as well as the religious, social, and political issues in these countries. Little by little, she turned to photography as an art form, in order to give a voice to people who are deprived of their most basic human rights. 

Diane Airbus: immersive photography, a voice of the underdogs 

socially engaged photography
Diane Arbus, Girl in a Swimming Cap, 1990

In this photo taken in 1990, a little girl with down syndrome is standing in a swimming pool. Her swimming cap with childish motifs, lets us think that this is a little girl like any other. A child who, like all the others, enjoys going to the pool and putting on her pretty bathing cap. Her natural attitude and the happiness that emanates from her face, questions our intolerance of different individuals. Why should this little girl, who seems so happy, not be allowed to feel this way every day of her life? What right do we have to decide what she can or cannot do? Places she might or might not be able to go to?

Throughout her career, the American photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) drew up the true contemporary anthropology of our society. Taking an interest in people qualified as “out of the ordinary”, she undertakes a long reflection on the society that surrounds us. She photographed strangers she met at random in the streets of New York. Individuals on the margins of a society that rejects them, that hides them. Among them, people intellectually disabled, trans-sexuals, people with dwarfism, twins, transvestites, and all these subjects considered as “fairground phenomena”. Through her pictures, she seeks to make us accept differences.

Sim Chi Yin: a fearsome eyewitness

Color photograph, taken by Sim Chi Yin, representing Chinese vacationers from all walks of life crammed into the wave pool of the Caribbean Water Park in Chongqing. Socially engaging photography.
Sim Chi Yin, Chinese vacationers from all walks of life crowd into the wave pool at Chongqing Caribbean Water Park

Hordes of Chinese vacationers crowd into the wave pool at Chongqing’s Caribbean Water Park, one of the most popular water parks in China. This is what Sim Chi Yin confronts us with. A world-renowned Chinese artist, her work juggles between a documentary approach to society and an intimate narrative. Sim Chi Yin’s documentation of the culture of the beach and vacations in China is a mise en abyme of today’s Chinese society. A society whose work culture is often seen as brutal and competitive, synonymous with long working hours for a little vacation. 

The feeling that immediately emerges from this photograph is undoubtedly oppression, the feeling of asphyxiation. The socially engaged image depicting thousands of people crammed on top of one another, on the lookout for the slightest artificial wave, points a finger at a society in which the health and hygiene of an individual are in the background. In China, the balance between work and private life is precarious. Chinese people from lower socio-economic backgrounds instinctively rush to the water parks closest to their homes and make the most of every minute of these short vacations. The wave pool is, for many of them, the closest feeling to the ocean. Their life is punctuated by hard work to be able to consume these precious days of vacation…

Jerome Liebling: photography meets social consciousness

socially engaged photography
Jerome Liebling, Butterfly boy, New York City , 1949

One Easter morning in Harlem, Jerome Liebling meets a young boy in a funny outfit: untied shoelaces, tattered pants, and a weather-beaten tweed coat. With his hands tucked into his pockets, the child opens his coat wide as if to take flight. Liebling immortalizes the scene that will become the famous “Butterfly Boy”. This socially engaged image of a winged superhero able to escape from this miserable world becomes a true icon, appearing on public posters and billboards in New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo among other places.

Jerome Liebling (1924-2011), an American photographer, filmmaker, and teacher, grew up in poverty in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. A witness to the atrocities of World War II, which he was involved with while serving in the glider infantry, he later declared that he “understood where the pain was …”. Two artistic figures shaped his work. His design professor Ad Reinhardt sharpened his sensitivity and the photographer Walter Rosenblum opened his eyes to the power of the photographic, socially engaged image. In 1947, Liebling joined “The Photo League”, a collective of socially open-minded photographers who wander through New York to immortalize the hidden corners of the city. For Liebling, the children of the city’s tumultuous streets are a symbol of strength. 

An overall message?

Finally, this immersive overview of these 10 engaging and iconic photos makes us question the various messages these artists wish to convey. From Cambodia to the United States, the messages are multiple, the struggles are different, but the suffering that these individuals underwent remains unchanged… A socially engaged photograph conveys a strong message and shines a light on people too often left in the shadows. Thus, these photographers reveal through their lenses what society, or routine, hides from us. Beyond its power of denunciation, socially engaged photograph opens our eyes to the fixed ideas and stereotypes anchored within us. A means perhaps of changing people’s fixed mentalities?

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