5 Award-Winning Photographers Discuss The Power Of Photography To Evoke Global Change

By Samantha Topp

Photographers across Asia weigh in on the power of visual journalism to raise awareness, evoke empathy and put a face to statistics

Tatler Asia
Marta poses for a photograph with her husband Apolinar in their home in Pampanga, Philippines. Martha is part of the group called ‘Malaya Lolas,’ or ‘Free Grandmothers,’ a group of survivors of mass rape during the second world war. Marta describes her husband's support as instrumental to her healing.
Cover  Photo: Hannah Reyes Morales

In 2015, Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir took a photograph that would become one of the defining images in recent history. The image of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian boy who lay drowned on a Turkish beach, went viral in a matter of hours. The harrowing image put a human face to the ongoing refugee crisis, drawing global attention to the atrocities families faced as they fled war-torn Syria for safety. Remembered as 'The Boy on the Beach', the image became symbolic of all children who had lost their lives trying to reach safety in Europe.

The global impact of Demir's image was instantaneous. The news of the toddler's tragic death trended on social media with the hashtag "Refugees Welcome", which was used more than 20 million times. News organisations worldwide published the image, and those who didn't were forced to publicly defend their decision not to. Finally, the continued public pressure resulted in some European governments temporarily shifting their border policies.

Throughout history, certain images have stayed in the hearts and minds of millions, even decades later. The Tiananmen Square Tank Man, the Napalm Girl of the Vietnam War or the Falling Man of 9/11—all images that became universal symbols of the struggles and triumphs humanity has faced in the past.

Here, we speak to five award-winning photographers about the role photography plays in evoking meaningful change. All five are covering some of the most consequential events in current times, from the protests in Hong Kong to the ongoing Rohingya crisis.

Hannah Reyes Morales

Hannah Reyes Morales is an award-winning photographer whose work documents tenderness amid adversity and how resilience is embodied in daily life. She has reported on forced marriages in Cambodia, documented women’s experiences with assault in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, the toll of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and the "long-term effects of the colonisation of women’s bodies in the Philippines." Her work can be found in National Geographic, The New York Times and The Washington Post and she was selected to be part of the prestigious World Press Photo's Joop Swart Masterclass.

Have you had a particular photo assignment you felt made significant difference?
"I'm not sure that any single story of mine takes precedence over the others. Each of them stays with me, and I carry them with me as I approach life and work. Often one story leads to the next, and each work offers nuance that I hadn’t quite seen before," she says. "One of my recent works, Roots from Ashes talks about the Malaya Lolas, a group of grandmothers who came together to try to seek justice from a mass rape that happened in the Second World War. I learned so much about healing and safe space-making through them. I also learned new things about Philippine history that I had never seen before. I don’t think I am done with that work, but I think about those grandmothers all the time when I think about survival and the role of community."

How can images be used to give the viewer a more intimate understanding of the story? 
"I think good photographs can elicit empathy, which I believe is one of the roots of change. Images can put a face to the statistics that we hear. It brings us closer to those at the intersections of inequity, of injustice, of poverty, of abuse. Images also have a power to shape the narratives around social justice issues," says Morales. "For me it’s always been important to portray the people living hard realities when they experience not just suffering but also joy, tenderness, pleasure. While it is important for me to know my own privileges when I am photographing I also want to be sure that when I am photographing I am viewing people in a position where I am looking at them eye to eye."

Laurel Chor

Laurel Chor is an award-winning visual journalist from Hong Kong. Previously working for Vice News Tonight, she covered politics across Asia including the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Chinese social credit system, the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother and the earthquake in Palu, Indonesia. During her time at Vice, she won the 2019 Overseas Press Club of America prize for “best international reporting in broadcast media showing a concern for the human condition”. She has worked with The New York Times, National Geographic, Getty, AFP, Reuters, the EPA, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and others.

Which of your photo projects do you feel made the biggest impact and why?
"Covering the Hong Kong protests and political crisis over the past year has been one of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences of my life. But of course I am passionate about my home. Being able to share our story with a wider audience and connect with people all over the world has showed me the power of storytelling and social media."

Can photography be used to empower unheard voices?
"Absolutely. Photography is a way of seeing. We need to showcase more ways of seeing if humanity is going to move forward and solve global problems. Photography, like any form of journalism, is a way of telling stories about people or things that may not get attention otherwise."

What duty of care do photographers have when creating work that can shape public opinion?
"Of course journalists and storytellers need to make sure they are presenting accurate and truthful information, but they also have a responsibility to help their audience to make sense of the world and everything that happens in it by providing context and explaining issues on a deeper level."

Mohd Samsul Mohd Said

Award-winning photojournalist Mohd Samsul Mohd Said has been in the industry for over 15 years. In that time he’s covered a range of stories, from humanitarian crises to Malaysian business and politics.

He's particularly known for his work documenting the ongoing Rohingya crisis—a project he describes as being particularly time-consuming and laborious due to difficulties in obtaining materials and the lack of stable media coverage on the topic. His determination to cover the story won him first place in the Current Affairs and News category of the Southeast Asia Sony World Photography Awards in 2018, making him the first Malaysian to win the award.

As a photographer, how do you ensure you are providing a safe space for your subject when shooting? 
“Before I take a picture of the story, I talk to the subject first. I also get the background details of the story so that I can be more intimate with the subject I’m shooting," he says. “Photographers spend all their time behind the camera, always thinking about finding the perfect visual, but it’s important that the photographer has feelings and imagination before taking any images. From that empathy, the photographer can turn emotion into a visual form.”

The impact of our images also help to create empathy and have the power to turn them into positive actions, Samsul says. "Photography helps us to understand ourselves in relation to the people around us and it allows us to put ourselves in [the subject's] situation, to feel what they feel."

What is the role of photography in relaying essential information to the public?
“Recorded visuals have the potential to change people's perspectives. Storytelling can open the mind of a particular community, and can push people to take action if the story needs attention—especially humanitarian issues involving loss of life, natural disasters and conflicts. Photography isn’t just a show of beauty, it's visual evidence of an event. It’s a way of documenting history for future generations.”

Noel Guevara

Noel Guevara started his career as a conservation and wildlife photographer and filmmaker in 2015, coming from a career in graphic design and directing. "The shift came instinctively after a dive trip in Tubbataha. I wanted to use my ability to tell visual stories effectively to assist in environmental advocacies and initiatives," he says.

Since that dive trip, Guevara has focused his lens on marine wildlife conservation, climate change and plastic pollution. His wildlife photography won him recognition at the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards, and, working with Greenpeace, his image of a crab in a cup (above) went viral, appearing on the front pages of broadsheets in Spain, France and Italy.

Do you believe that photography is an effective channel for raising awareness of environmental issues? 
"With photography, the age-old adage that 'a picture paints a thousand words' still holds true, so photos that illustrate environmental issues and concerns effectively really have the potential to spread awareness and galvanise action," Guevara says. "But that is just one half of the equation. A photograph's innate ability to spread awareness is a categorical truth that is actualised the moment the photo is taken. The real power of effective photography—and this is what I see as the purpose of my work—is to spark discourse and encourage discussion."

How has your photography of sharks changed people's perceptions?
"My personal initiative to regularly post about sharks on social media slowly converted most of my network from the persistent prejudice against them that they are 'mindless killers'. This is a feat I’m really proud of. And when my photos of sharks coexisting with divers, freedivers and even fishermen started circulating, more and more people started asking questions—the right questions. It led them to come to their own conclusions that sharks are not the mythologised killers they have been amped up to be."

Xyza Cruz Bacani

Tatler Asia
My children are too young to experience hunger,” said Ruby Castro, a mother of nine.  Before the enhanced community quarantine, Ruby juggled two jobs to feed her family. In the morning, she cooked meals and waited tables. In the afternoon, she was a nanny.  As a single mother, Ruby spent most of her waking hours working. But her earnings were never enough to feed all the members of her household. Two of her daughters got pregnant early. They live with Ruby in a tiny, windowless shack.
Above  "My children are too young to experience hunger,” said Ruby Castro, a mother of nine. Before the enhanced community quarantine, Ruby juggled two jobs to feed her family. In the morning, she cooked meals and waited tables. In the afternoon, she was a nanny. As a single mother, Ruby spent most of her waking hours working. But her earnings were never enough to feed all the members of her household. Two of her daughters got pregnant early. They live with Ruby in a tiny, windowless shack. A community toilet is shared with their neighbours. (Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani/Project Ugnayan)

Xyza Cruz Bacani is a documentary photographer who uses her work to raise awareness of underreported stories. She worked as a domestic worker in Hong Kong for almost a decade, sparking her interest in the intersection of labor migration and human rights. She is a Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice Fellow, and was recently selected as a Pulitzer Center grantee.

What photo projects are you working on currently?
"My latest favourite (I have tons of favourites) is Project Ugnayan," Bacani says. The project raises funds for households in Manila who were displaced by quarantine measures due to Covid-19, and Bacani is documenting the process. "In today's climate it's difficult to find hope, but this project shows me we can be hopeful. It's a story of love, dignity and compassion."

Can photography be used to empower unheard voices?
"Photography is a conduit for unheard voices. It can be a platform that sparks conversations about underreported issues and create connections," she says. "Photography is also a great visual tool to activate people to take action."

See honourees from the Media, Marketing & Advertising category of the Gen.T List 2019.

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