Exhibitions, Inspiration, Photojournalism

Photographing evil

Many pictures at the World Press Photo Exhibition have impact, but the surprising beauty of some require revisiting

Migrant sex worker © Paolo Patrizi

This image and the collection from which it came, for me, was the highlight of a recent visit to the World Press Photo exhibition. Paolo Patrizi’s story about migrant sex workers in Italy say very little about the lives of the individuals within them, but allude powerfully to complicated social issues of migration, poverty and race.

This got me thinking about why I want to return to certain pictures and not others within a gallery space occupied by talented photographers and worthy stories. In an effort to understand a little of the psychology at work here, I revisited Robert Adam’s book ‘Beauty in Photography’ and an essay entitled ‘Photographing Evil’, a subject traditionally associated with Photojournalism.

Adams had been photographing coal mines in the area around Ludlow, Colorado, a place which he found unnervingly beautiful despite the facts with which he was confronted – ‘carcinogenic residues that were being dumped into streams and air, for instance, and the broken social patterns that the mines brought to nearby towns.’

He tried to photograph a monument to the killing of miners and their families by the Colorado militia, but felt resigned to the fact that he had wasted his time – that his skills and methods weren’t up to recording his heightened awareness of the issues that had motivated him to drive 80 miles out of his way on a sunny winter morning.

Adams does not berate himself though, preferring to take comfort in the fact that many photographers and artists, when faced with the horrors of war or social inequality, have made their best work while looking the other way. He cites Edward Hopper in particular as someone who worked through the Depression of the 1920’s without addressing its problems directly.

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928

Adams goes on to suggest that, by choosing subjects which in some way celebrate life – or in the case of Patrizi’s pictures use nature and light as a metaphor for hope – the pictures might become objects to which we return when hope is the only emotion we can salvage from a particularly traumatic situation or experience.

‘Restated, photography as art does address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to convince us of life’s value; the darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended, Which is to say that art addresses an inner struggle whereas journalism more often reports on the outward consequences of it.’

The Photojournalism I admire not only addresses an issue but invariably uses elements of composition or light to draw the gaze and the mind away from the issue itself to a place where an alternative narrative – which would be different for every viewer – is allowed to take hold and develop. This imaginative space is created by elements of composition, light and the presence of nature which combine to unlock a sense of beauty.

Adams finishes his essay by referring to images where photographers have been able to capture this duality in a single frame citing Lewis Hine as a prime example.


“There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work.”

— Lewis Hine, 1908