Bearing Witness: Photography and Social Change


Photography is an empathy toward the world.

– Lewis Hine

Bearing Witness: Photography and Social Change
MTWThF – 1-4:20, Merion Hall 174

Mike Lyons
Office: Bronstein, 3rd floor
Office hours – Week 1 (online by appointment), Week 2 (M-F – 12-1)

This course examines the impact of photography on social movements and social issues from the early 20th Century to the present. Social issues exist in a nest of mediated content from newspaper and magazine articles to tweets and photographs. It is often photographs that last the longest in our collective cultural memory.

Photographs are not objective. A photographer frames and composes a picture to elicit a reaction and all of that framing and composing are, in the case of documentary photographers that we will study, are political and sociological acts. These photographs have a purpose – to arouse, anger, sadden and build solidarity for a cause.

An intersession course is, in theory, designed to replicate a full semester course. Each day of an intersession course is roughly a week of a regular course. So the reading/watching/listening for this course is heavy, but manageable.


I expect by the end of the class that you will be able to:

• Discuss the concept of “bearing witness” and the impact of images on human rights issues.
• Argue the ethical implications of taking and looking at photographs of political violence.
• Explain how the “new visibility” and the ubiquitous digital camera (among other technological innovations) shape social change and contentious political issues and vice versa.


There are two books required for the class:

• Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence
• Martin Berger, Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography

There are other things to read and watch as well. I will make those available with links in the “schedule” below.


• Reading responses

Each day for the first week you will submit reading responses to Blackboard that provide a brief synopsis and main points of each assigned text (written text like a book chapter and/or audio and/or video) and respond to a question(s) that I pose for that day. This is due by 4:20 p.m. (the end of class) each day.

During the second week of class, your responses will guide our class discussions. So they have to be turned in a little earlier – by 11 a.m. – so I can read them over before class.

The reading responses can’t be made up or turned in late, so don’t go to sleep on them.

• Essay 1

This essay will focus on stuff from the first week of the course. I will provide a prompt and it will be due on Monday, Jan. 9 by 9 a.m. I will provide more details during the first week.

• Essay 2

This essay will focus on the civil rights photography and will be in audio format, meaning you will record your voice and take us through a number of photographs. This one will take some preparation and we will spend some time in class learning how to do some audio recording. This will be due on the final Saturday of the course.


Reading notes – 50 percent
Essay 1 – 25 percent
Essay 2 – 25 percent


Each day’s class is a week during the regular semester. Don’t miss a class without an valid excuse – documented illness, death in the family, etc. One day costs you a letter grade.


Reasonable academic accommodations may be provided to students who submit appropriate documentation of their disability.  Students are encouraged to contact Dr. Christine Mecke in the Office of Student Disability Services, Bellarmine, B-10, at; or at 610.660.1774 (voice), or 610.660.1620 (TTY), for assistance with this issue.  The university also provides an appeal/grievance procedure regarding requested or offered reasonable accommodations through Dr. Mecke’s office.  More information:


January 2 – Photography: Art, document, propaganda and machine

• Beaumont Newhall, “A New Form of Communication” (pdf) newhall-a-new-form-of-communication
• Beaumont Newhall, “Documentary Photography”(pdf)  newhall-documentary-photography
• Beaumont Newhall, “Photojournalism” (pdf) newhall-photojournalism

Reading response (due on blackboard by 4 p.m. on Jan. 2).

Jan. 3 – Documentary photography and considering the impact of images

Read: Tamara Kay, “Building Solidarity with Subjects and Audience in Sociology and Documentary Photography,” Sociological Forum (pdf) kay-article

Watch: Sebastiao Salgado, TedTalk, “The Silent Drama of Photography”

Read: Sue Tait, “Bearing Witness, Journalism and Moral Responsibility,” Media, Culture and Society (pdf) tait-bearing-witness

Watch: Marcus Bleasdale, “The Power of Photography to Bear Witness,” Nat Geo Live

Jan. 4 – The photographer as reformer – The work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine

• Jacob Riis, “How the Other Half Lives” Read: Chapter 5 – “The Italian in New York”

Excerpt from the documentary New York.

Robert Siegel, “Jacob Riis: Shedding Light on NYC’s ‘Other Half'” on NPR, June 30, 2008

Jacob Riis, “Five Cents a Spot.”

• Lewis Hine, immigrants and child labor

Read: Peter Seixas, “Lewis Hine: From Social to Interpretive Photographer,” American Quarterly, 1987 (pdf). lewis-hine-from-social-to-interpretive-photographer-american-quarterly

Read: Lewis Hine, “Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in Social Uplift” – a speech delivered by Hine to the National Conference of Charities and Correction in Buffalo, June 9-16, 1909.

Mark Murrmann, “The Photos That Helped End Child Labor in the United States,” Mother Jones, Oct. 3, 2015.

Jan. 5 – The Farm Security Administration: Photographs and their politics

• Watch Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk Of Lightening (available to rent on YouTube for

Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother”


• Read: Linda Gordon, “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist,” The Journal of American History – dorothea-lange-the-photographer-as-agricultural-sociologist

Jan. 6 – Images, political violence and human rights

Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence  ch.1 – “A Little History of Photography Criticism; or, why do critics hate photographers?”

Essay 1 assigned. The assignment will be available at 3 p.m. on Blackboard and is due by 9 a.m. Monday. The daily readings are still due as well. That’s what makes this intersession thing a little tough.

Jan. 7 – Photographs as rights arguments

Linfield, Ch. 2 – Photojournalism and Human Rights
Linfield, Ch. 3 – Warsaw, Lodz, Auschwitz

Jan. 9 – This reading response is due by 11 a.m. on Monday, two hours before class. It will be available at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Readings from now on will be available after class on the day before they are due. So tomorrow’s readings will be available after class today.

Linfield, Ch. 4 – China: From Malraux’s Dignity to the Red Guards’ Shame
Linfield, Ch. 5 – Sierra Leone: Beyond the Sorrow and the Pity

Essay 1 due at 9 a.m today on Blackboard.

Jan. 10 – On Photographers: Capturing Sorrow and Triumph

Linfield, Ch. 7 – Robert Capa: The Optimist
Linfield, Ch. 8 – James Nachtwey: The Catastrophist

Photo by James Nachtwey.

Jan. 11 – Photography and the Civil Rights Movement

Berger, Introduction – The Iconic Photographs of the Civil Rights
Berger, Ch. 1 – The Formulas of Documentary Photography

Jan. 12

Berger, Ch. 2 – White Shame, White Empathy
Berger, Ch. 3 – Perfect Victims and Imperfect Tactics

Essay 2 assigned. The essay will be available after class on Thursday and is due by the end of class – 12:30 p.m. – on Saturday.

Jan. 13 – The “New Visibility” – Photography in the Age of Social Media

Susan Sontag, “On the Torture of Others,” The New York Times

Jan. 14

Essay 2 due.