Bob Ahern: What is Photography?


I have spent over 20 years working with historical photographs and, for me, photography is the most powerful way for our pasts to connect with our present. No more compelling way to recognize who we might be than by seeing another version of ourselves—from another time, another culture, or another place. And from crisis to catastrophe to impossible triumphs, photography has documented it all. We are, of course, still unraveling so much from the past; from vast archives of unseen glass plates, to the millions of prints and negatives from the last century, there is so much work from photographers still to discover. But what we do know is the veracity of a single photograph, the legitimacy of a body of work must remain foundational to our cultural and historical record.

So photography is also truth. Or at least it should be. Truths both in the Bergsonian sense as we seek out the poetry hidden in a fraction of a second, to truths we are confronted with through the work of photographers whose exceptional commitment and skill is to bear witness. And whether a camera is picked up through the joy or necessity of making a frame, it should be done with a desire to connect and to understand our World, however big or small that world might be. After all, photographs are our front row seat to history; to terror, to beauty, and to the intimate, ordinary life. They will show us what we did and what we did not do. The very worst of us, and the very best of us.

In the words of the American photographer Jill Freedman, “Photography is the only thing that can stop time itself” and, in the right hands, a camera is a weapon. A weapon that can further understanding, inspire and ignite change. And just as those pioneers did 200 years ago, we must never stop innovating. So go on, pick up that camera and show the world what’s on your mind.

Bob Ahern, Director of Archive Photography, Getty Images

Photograph © Cory Rice

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