The Civic Photographer

The more people photographing truth to power, the better.

"Home of an Italian Ragpicker" (Jacob Riis, public domain via Preus museum)

“Home of an Italian Ragpicker” (Jacob Riis, public domain via Preus museum)

On the first morning of Personal Democracy Forum, Micah Sifry shared a more than 100-year-old image by Jacob Riis from a series titled How the Other Half Lives. Riis, who was equal parts photographer and social reformer, created the series to call attention to the deplorable living conditions in the tenement housing system. Sifry’s interlude was followed by talks by Eric Liu, on reckoning with power and positionality, as well as Jess Kutch and Palak Shah on re-envisioning labor movements for the 21st century. All the while, Riis’ image remained in my mind’s eye, and got me thinking about all those who should be considered today’s Jacob Riis.

Is it the Chinese activists sharing images on Weibo that contradict official history?

Or Joao Silva, whose long journalistic career has included chronicling the end of apartheid, the War on Terror, and human rights abuses in the Balkans, to name just a few of his subjects.

Riis surely would have approved of the efforts of the International Bar Association, which has just unveiled an Android app to help human rights activists document and store images until they are shown in court. The idea behind the application is to time-stamp and affix GPS-determined location to each uploaded image, verify the image, and protect “the safety of those brave enough to record them.”

Maybe Riis’ latest inheritor is the 15-year-old bystander who filmed this weekend’s police violence against black teens in McKinney, Texas. Brandon Brooks’ video of a police officer holding down a bikini-clad teen and waving his rifle at two of her male peers has been shared around the world in a matter of days.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter who fills Riis’ shoes. The more people photographing truth to power, the better.

Another PDF speaker, Harold Feld, reminded us that the net is an undeniable public utility. Moments before that, Dante Berry pointed out that over 100 million Americans lacked reliable internet service. Merely having internet access or a camera isn’t enough. Today, just as it did in Riis’ era, what matters most is what we do after the images are captured. Will we share, question, organize and culture-hack around them, or will we let the agenda and power be set by someone else?

Zoe Middleton is an aspiring academic (read: grad student) in New York. When she’s not thinking about media studies and sociology, you can find her searching the city for quality pastor tacos. You can find more of her ideas here. Zoe attended PDF15 as a Knight Foundation Fellow.