To mark the opening of "Water, Rivers and People (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos)," a photography exhibition about people's relationship with rivers and their struggle to protect them from destructive dams, mining projects, and other threats, International Rivers held a panel discussion with two of the exhibit's photographers and two river activists. One of the main themes of the discussion was the importance of images in galvanizing a movement, and it made me think a lot about the missing visual element of the SOLE food revolution.
Aviva Imhof, the Campaigns Director for International Rivers, noted that her organization relies on words to get its message out. They write reports, letters, press releases and more to support their campaigns. But images – like the photographs in the current exhibition – can reach your heart in a way that words can't, she noted. Roberto (Bear) Guerra, whose photographs document peasant farmers' battle against the La Parota dam project in Guerrero State, Mexico, agreed that a still image – as opposed to a moving image on film or video – has a special power because allows us to spend time with a place or a person.
"Activists and photographers need to work together," said Robert Dawson, a photographer and lecturer and photographer at Stanford University.
Some parts of river activism are difficult to capture. How do you use photographs to show that a river now has no fish because of dams and other human impacts? Imhof asked, while Dawson pointed out that dams are hard to photograph because they are cover vast distances.
The image at right is one of the photos in "Water, Rivers and People," which is a selection from of a traveling exhibition of more than 400 photos that is currently somewhere in Spain. It shows a woman praying next to temple that was recently submerged by rising waters on the Narmada River caused by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India.Sponsored by International Rivers and Madera Group, the show is up at Berkeley's David Brower Center until August 31.
The panel discussion made me think about the SOLE food movement. Does it have any iconic images?
There are certainly plenty of images included with our writing or in films, but do any have the power of some of the great icons of the past, like the man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square or Bull Connor's snarling dogs attacking Civil Rights demonstrators in the 1960s? I can't think of any.
One possible reason that no images have come to the forefront that the SOLE food movement covers a lot of ground and is rarely focused on a particular campaign. International Rivers, in contrast, is always working on specific campaigns — stopping a dam on this river, restoring that river. Even somewhat discrete events, like campaigning for more funding for school lunches or fighting to increase wages for farm workers, don't seem to have the same power as something like the Tiananmen Square protests. The everyday work of the SOLE food movement — teaching people about seasonal fresh foods, starting new markets, protecting organic standards from corporate-driven erosion — offers far fewer opportunities for images.
As exciting as food policy meetings or seminars on aquaculture can be, they just don't have the photogenic quality of, for example, Civil Rights marchers being attacked by armed thugs.
One exception to this general rule is in the area of animal welfare. Photos and particularly videos of animal abuse in factory farms — unhealthy, partially defeathered hens packed into tiny cages, videos of workers kicking turkeys, shocking pigs, forklifting cows — have led to modest reforms in livestock handling and inspired countless people to seek out alternatives, whether pasture-raised animals or a vegetarian diet. But I'd argue that such images can't rise to the status of "iconic" because they are just too visceral, and don't represent a single moment in time.
Am I missing something? Do we already have a collection of iconic images that I am unaware of? What areas would be best served by a partnership between activists and photographers?
Photo of Khoteswa, Narmada River, India by Karen Robinson (1999), used with permission. Background on the Narmada River can be found at International Rivers and more photos of the river by Karen Robinson can be found on her website.