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Beyond Documentation: Social Commentary Through Digital Photography

Mutual Art. (2006). Last Riot 2, Panorama #4. [Photograph].

Photography is considered as a medium that represents reality, by recording moments and events. Also, comprise a self-expression medium capturing feelings and beliefs. During the centuries photographers have developed an intimate relationship with history; As Walter Benjamin wrote “Photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance”. The photographs contain meanings, emotion, and an underwritten message which is conveyed through them.

Photographs have been used by the journalist to record events, by scientists to gather data, by artists for visual expression, and by almost anyone today with a smartphone who feels the need to capture a beautiful, relaxing moment or witness an act of injustice. It is a matter of fact that the camera plays a special role in our lives. The new technologies of the last century were influential for photography development. The shift from the analog to the digital leads photographers to discover new conceptions of forms, use new materials, develop a perspective and subject matter, out of the “traditional” limits of photojournalism and documentation. Digital Photography has been shaped by the developments in the art movements of Surrealism and Dadaism in parallel with the new technologies of creation, editing reproduction, and the ideologies of democratization. Photographers are recreating impossible scenes by exploring the relationship between humanity and technology. Behind digital photographic manipulation, there are usually three motivations; Sociopolitical reasons, the desire to create new worlds and the need to comment on digital photography itself, and the limitations of the medium.

Shields T. (2020). Indulgence series. [Photograph].

The Social Commentary genre allows the artist to reinvent events photographically without being bound by the limitations of photojournalism and documentary photography. Social commentary is an art form created through means of rhetorical propaganda. Its main aim is to promote change by informing society about social problems and injustices. The general idea of photography represents a way of communication. For children, images are considered one of the earliest tools to express their thoughts and feeling in their own way. The majority of photographs come into existence through the connection with an audience. The artist produces work with an underwritten message that is conveyed to the public through photography. Not all photographers have produced works with socio-political messages but definitely, the commentary artists have a specific idea to convey by revealing their motives behind the production of the image. The interactivity with the audience is a crucial “ingredient” in the values and purposes of digital photography, and new technologies certainly favor this relationship and provide a “rich soil”.

Twenty years ago, the use of the Internet and the easy access to it through every possible device seemed distant and unattainable. The development of mobile technology and particularly the emergence and widespread use of Smartphones have brought to the spotlight a new dynamic in the user communication field; social media. This is one of the most rapid developments of the last decade, reshaping both the personal and professional landscape. As it is mentioned, social commentary works are created through means of rhetorical propaganda, the massive distribution and reproduction of the works, through social media served their purpose, communicating their message to a worldwide online audience.

According to the British magazine “ArtReview” and its annual ranking “Power 100” most influential people of the art world, for 2020, the Black lives matter movement made it to the first spot. The debate about equal rights, discrimination, and racism has been reflected through art for a long time and can be felt in every level of the art world with a major impact on the pop-culture. The movement is strongly influenced by the African-American Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s that is referred by many as the “new civil rights movement”. Using this idea for inspiration, the photographer Tyler Shields, represents to the audience through his social media platforms, a “historical fiction” photographic series. Shields visualizes the true message that he wants the audience to experience by transforming a true-life story into an art form with explicit viewer image interaction The statement through his “historical fiction” works is simple but essential “You shouldn’t do it if you can’t handle it being done to you”. The main idea was to present the black people as the perpetrators of the violence that has been perpetrated against them for so long and force the viewer to react and consider himself in their place. In his photographs, he uses digital compositing to create scenes highlighting the social and political inequalities.

Shields, T. (2020). I can't breathe. [Photograph].

The murder of George Floyd, during an arrest by a group of white officers of Minneapolis, was the inspiration for Shields’ work “I can’t breathe”. Through that work, Shields changes the narrative of the event, reversing the reality, making a clear comment for the police brutality. In the photograph, the viewer could see a white police officer while he is under attack, immobilized, facedown by two people. The photograph is named after the last words of Mr. Floyd “I can’t breathe”.

Nowadays the role of photography goes beyond the documentation of reality with the traditional ways. The Social Commentary genre combines the narration of real and disturbing issues of our society through the artists’ eyes and beliefs. The viewer could achieve new knowledge through the photographic messages, educating himself about socio-political and environmental matters. The technological development and the common use of the social media platforms from the artists benefit the widespread of the underwritten photographic messages, influence the public minds in a meaningful way. The Internet and social media provide easy and open access to the artworks for everyone, no matter their locations, a condition that redefines the way artists exhibit their works but also how they choose to communicate with their audiences.


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Tyler Shields. Accessed from


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Anna-Aikaterini Bati

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