Great Photographs That Capture the World As It Disappears

Photography is the visual art form of our time. No other medium can convey an idea as quickly and powerfully as a photo. It’s an art in which almost everyone is an active participant but where skill and talent are still prized.

So what photos are speaking most strongly to us today?

A Global Lens

Some answers to this question are found among the recently announced Winners of the 2014 World Press Photo Awards. The winning pictures, which you can see on the BBC’s website, show a stunning array of subject matters and locales. The first prize photograph by American photojournalist John Stanmeyer was taken near Djibouti city.

In the photo, moonlit silhouettes dapple a shoreline. They raise their cellphones high in the air; their glowing screens stand out against a dark sky.

The people in the photo are African migrants trying to pick up a phone signal from Somalia. The photographer explained, “”It connects to all of us…It’s just people trying to call loved ones. It could be you, it could be me, it could be any one of us.” According to the BBC, Jillian Edelstein, a panel member for the World Press Photo Awards, said that the photo “raised issues of technology, globalisation, migration, poverty, desperation, alienation and humanity.”

Capturing an Evolving World

The photograph is remarkable in the way it takes a locale and an experience that is unfamiliar to much of Stanmeyer’s audience (myself included) and casts them as something so basic and timely. But beyond that, it depicts the ever new and ever evolving world we inhabit. It reflects a “basic human experience” that has only existed for a handful of years. And it is both exciting and saddening to realize how quickly those things evolve.

Appealing to Nostalgia

 Contrasting with Stanmeyer’s image is a collection of photographs created by David Graham. Recently featured in Slate, Graham’s pictures are the definition of kitsch. They depict scenes of Middle America—and the giant dinosaur statues, pizza joints, and corn-cob water towers that can (or could once) be found there. No subject could be more different than Stanmeyer’s often shocking depictions of poverty and violence.

The collection rings strongly of nostalgia. Graham told Slate, “Much of what I shot in the earlier years depended on small businesses and individual examples of self-expression. Now, small businesses have been overtaken by chains; individual or handmade things have been replaced by store-bought substitutes.”

Outside the Frame, a Profound Similarity

 While some disdain the type of “Norman Rockwellian” nostalgia that can be found in Graham’s photographs, his images of oversized statuary and old fast food joints do have one significant thing in common with Stanmeyer’s award-winning Somalia photograph.

Both photographers make immediate, strong impressions. Like all the great photographs of our time, their work always forces us to reflect on how rapidly the world is changing around us. When I wonder about the future of our planet, I find myself becoming as nostalgic for the present as one normally is for the past. Great photographs make us feel finite and out of control. They challenge us to face all sorts of questions:

How can we make things better?

Where are we going next?

And is there even time to make things better before it all changes again?


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