And it’s great, all this imaging, this sharing, this democratization of the photographer. But when was the last time an Instagram photo (barring a new coupling by your former better half) twisted your chest into knots, made you furious, made you want to cry, made you think, made you stop for a second and realize how beautifully fragile our existence really can be?
We cannot shape our world as we might idealize. And we can’t make it stay as it appeared—and perhaps was, fleetingly—in a frame. But what a photograph can do, arguably, is isolate a moment and allow us to understand it more wholly.
Consider Kevin Carter’s photo of the Somali child in 1993, her spine curved like a pinecone and nearly as brittle, being stalked by a vulture. A wave of outcry broke out over Carter’s 20-minute setup to capture the moment in lieu of helping the orphan. But what “help” might have been offered? “Help,” by some accounts, is simply that which shines light.
How about Thomas Hoepker’s photo of five New Yorkers sprawled atop a park bench in Brooklyn, seemingly discussing Whole Foods annoyances, while the Twin Towers plummet in the backdrop betwixt their placid figures? Though the subjects contested accusations of apathy toward a tremendously grievous moment in American history, the photo incited discourse about what it means to be American in modern times.
Collecting these moments, of course, involves risk. Kevin Carter, for example, killed himself three months after his photo was published, unable to endure the “the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain... of starving or wounded children” among other things he noted in his suicide letter.
Take, too, the Rodney King incident. The man who caught the infamous police brutality on film was a drain rooter who put down his pipe cleaners long enough to pick up a camera and ruin his life. Some heralded him as a hero for exposing injustice, but many laid the blame of the subsequent Los Angeles riots on his interference. He received death threats, and lost both his job and his marriage.
Kenneth Bale, an American tour guide, faced the death penalty in early 2013 for allegedly photographing orphans begging in the streets of the Rason Special Economic Zone, in light of North Korea’s rigid rules—which prohibit photography of poverty. And of course, death is always a possible penance, and not necessarily by human forces. Natural disasters, precarious praecipes, unmarked landmines—each can be the undoing of a photographer.
Courtesy the deluge of social media, we live in an era of constant image proliferation. The potential to awe or incite dialogue can seem at best random, while the risks photographers face are evermore complex. Thus we face a quandary: Is playing the eyes of the world worth its possible rewards?
But to ask that question is to neglect the potential glory of our god-like aspirations. fifty-five million photographs uploaded daily to Instagram has diluted the fact that when death is warded off, psychological hurdles overcome, discourse successfully bandied about, wonderment evoked, the photographer at hand emerges victorious, ranks and reaches above the Joe Schmoes documenting their quotidian ingestion of a store-bought meal. And status, we all know—even Miley, especially Miley, knows—is a commodity reserved for a select few.
A survey that holistically represents our aspirations to freeze time is, admittedly, near to impossible. But here, find a small selection of photos and their photographers whose product would not be possible without that faint whiff of that glimmer of glory.
Storm chaser Justin Hobson followed this storm for the better part of an hour near Campo, Colo., when “suddenly it got its act together and just planted itself,” Hobson says. “This beast lasted between fifteen to twenty minutes crossing through the Colorado prairies.” Telephone poles fell, lying prostrate in the storm’s wake as it tore across county roads and a highway. “It was such a rush...”
Mustang Wanted, a 26-year-old Ukranian amature stuntman who was once a legal advisor, climbs to absurd heights sans net or lanyard to get dizzying aerial views of urban landscapes.
On the Big Island of Hawaii, where molten hot lava pours into the ocean, CJ Kale and Nick Selway pummel through 110-degree waters to capture the union of lava and ocean crests through the barrel of a wave. Entering the water within feet of the lava’s entry point—where water is near scalding and lava bombs float in the water—the pair took the world’s first photos of the natural phenomenon.
Photographer Paul Smith shot this photo of a dilapidated bridge in the town of San Blas, ground zero for Colombian right-wing paramilitaries’ headquarters in the Middle Magdalena valley. The so-called Bacrim groups—shorthand for criminal gangs—patrol the areas where Smith was stationed to collect stories about forced displacement and photograph deserted villages. “You can never be certain if or when trouble will present itself…Sometimes I moved through areas where combats between guerrillas and the military or Bacrim had recently taken place, though you wouldn’t have know it but for the stories. When trouble does come, it tends to come out of nowhere…”
Photography: CJ Kale and Nick Selway at lavalightgalleries.com, Mustang Wanted at mustang-wanted.com, Paul Smith at newworldimages.net, and Justin Hobson.