Photography has a long history as a tool for the formation and reformation of public life.
Social documentary photographers such as Jacob Riis, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange
were motivated by the belief that looking at pictures of suffering and injustice would help to
promote social reform. A sense of shared public life and shared responsibility underpinned
their work in the hope that their photographs would foster empathy, mutual understanding
and change. Theorists such as Martha Rosler (2003), Susan Sontag (1977, 2003), Abigail
Solomon-Godeau (2004) and John Berger (2003) have critiqued the emotive qualities of
humanist documentary photography heavily since the 1970s. Photographs of disempowered
or disenfranchised peoples have been criticized in terms of a double violence in which these
victims of economic exploitation are also made victims of the photographers’ and spectators’
voyeuristic gaze. However, despite this criticism, photography still powerfully allows us to
negotiate public life, and plays an important role in questioning the way we think about and
define our realities.
(Marsh, Miles and Palmer, 2015: 13)