Iconic images pack the power for social change

The photograph of American Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland’s naked body being spat on and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 shocked the American public.

Taken by Canadian journalist Paul Watson, the photo – attributed to sparking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war-torn country in 1995 – earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography a year later.

The picture demonstrated the power photography has to affect social change.

Andrew Stawicki is a former Toronto Star photographer and co-founder of Photosensitive, a collective of photographers aimed at exploring how the camera can achieve social goals.

“If there is no message, a picture is just a picture,” Stawicki said. “Content is very important. If you don’t have the content, you don’t have a picture.”

Photosensitive has covered projects around Canada as well as globally, documenting the HIV/AIDS crisis in Rwanda and profiling cities across Europe such as Krakow, Poland.

“We wanted to help different organizations. We don’t think about us, we think about other people who we donate the images to,” he said.

But taking a photograph that has influence or warrants social change is a task that requires both skill and patience.

“Make mistakes. Mistakes allow people to learn. I make mistakes everyday and that’s how I’m improving my photography.

“You look for something you can connect with the story,” he added.

Stawicki said taking photos of sensitive subjects such as sick children is difficult as photographers must connect with the subject and make the picture, not simply take it.

In 1994, Photosensitive exhibited a project called “Precious Time” that showed the gritty side of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

Photographers were given 24-hour access to the hospital and ended up with a photo that would spawn a donation of $10,000.

“We went into the room where a mother was sleeping with a baby at midnight and we took a picture,” he said.

The photo was of a frail newborn baby wrapped in a blanket surviving with the help of a feeding tube.

Snapping a photo like this that captures the emotional peril in some situations doesn’t always happen, but Stawicki said something inside you lets you know it will make a difference.

“If you believe it, you got it,” he said.