The Power of a Photograph

And 10 Photos that are burned onto my retina

The Power of a Photograph

“What makes a good photograph?”

It’s a theme often explored on the photo walk workshops I run. With practice, good photos can be achieved fairly consistently. But what does a ‘good’ photo mean? I’m sure many people have written many essays on the subject but for me, a good photograph is one that achieves it’s goals.

If someone asked you to take their portrait and they loved the results, then it is a successful image and a good photo because it achieved it’s aims. If you took a portrait of a friend for a competition and the photograph receives a commendation in the competition then it has been relatively successful.

But what makes a great photo? I believe a photograph becomes great when it surpasses it’s initial goals and reaches beyond it’s intended audience.

Recently a photograph of a drowned three year old Syrian boy called Alan Kurdi from Syria shook the world and sparked what appeared to be a u-turn in public opinion towards the immigration crisis. The image even evoked a response from world leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron.

When Photographer Nilufer Demir visited the infamous beach in Greece she had done so to photograph some Afghan and Pakistani refugees about set off on the next part of their journey. But when she saw the events unfurling on the beach she decided to photograph the drowned child.

In that moment, her ambitions for the photo were to get the image published and share the situation she was witnessing. She could not have anticipated just how big the image would become and that just hours after it’s release the British Prime Minister would increase the previously stated figure for the intake of Syrian refugees by several thousand.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nilufer’s photo of Alan Kurdi will be referenced in the photography books of tomorrow as an example of how photography can, and does, change the world.

10 Photos that are burned onto my retina
As someone who has been obsessed with photography from an early age, you would need a hard drive with some pretty hefty storage to contain the number of images I’ve consumed over the years. Some photos float in and out but some stay stuck and are impossible to forget.

1. Horst P Horst, Mainbocher Corset, 1939

Horst P Horst, Mainbocher Corset

After my GCSEs I went straight onto a National Diploma in Photography. Horst was one of the first photographers I studied and wrote an essay on. I found this striking image exquisite, with it’s exceptional lighting and iconic composition.

2. Nan Golding, Nan and Brian in bed, New York 1983

Nan Golding, Nan and Brian in bed, New York 1983

When I first experienced Nan Goldin’s photographs from the series I’ll be your mirror I was blown away. This photo feels cinematic, yet very real, it also feels like it conveys all the emotions of a complex relationship in just one frame.

3. Paul Lowe, Chechnya Grozny 1995

Paul Lowe, Chechnya Grozny 1995

This one photo is the one that really stuck in my mind from an exhibition full of powerful imagery. The Magnum exhibition at the Barbican was one of the most impressive and at times difficult to take in. This photo, stays with me because it is comparatively (in war photography) subtle in content and composition, yet the image is all the more powerful for it.

4. Andreas Gursky, Untitled III. 1996

Andreas Gursky, Untitled III. 1996

If you haven’t seen Gursky’s work in an exhibition, there’s a chance that you might not fully appreciate the brilliance of his photography. I will never forget experiencing his breathtakingly epic prints at the Serpentine gallery. The way he makes complicated scenes looks so simple and minimal has always been an inspiration to me.


5. Nick Ut, Vietnam Napalm 1972

Nick Ut, Vietnam Napalm

This shocking, tragic and disturbing photo taken during the Vietnam war, is simply impossible to forget.

6. Annie Leibovitz, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1980

Annie Leibovitz, John Lennon and Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to judge if this portrait would have been as iconic had John Lennon not been assassinated just hours after this photo was taken. But he was and this is a very iconic and emotive portrait.


6. Ian Tilton, Kurt Cobain crying backstage, Seatle 1990

Ian Tilton, Kurt Cobain crying backstage

As an adolescent, Nirvana were an important band for me. I remember seeing this image for the first time at the Proud Gallery in London. For me the portrait encapsulates the music the band created. There is no barrier between photographer and subject here, which is what makes it particularly great.

8. Richard Billingham, Untitled 1994 

Richard Billingham

I was familiar with Richard Billingham’s work in this series before experiencing them at the infamous I am Camera exhibition. I remember standing in the Saatchi gallery being completely absorbed by this new kind of aesthetic that seemed more real, more honest.

9. Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 83, 2005

Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer

I’m a big Tillmans fan. Of all my photography books his look the most worn. I first discovered him at the Turner Prize exhibition 2005. I came away inspired and excited at a new world of photographic possibilities. I love how blurred the lines are between his own personal work and his commercial work but what I really love is that he seems to be continually questioning what a photograph actually is?


10. Elliott Erwitt, New York City (Dog Legs), 1974

Elliott Erwitt, New York City

A true master of the camera. I could have easily put a Henry Cartier Bresson photo here too, as both photographers are the forefathers and heroes of “the decisive moment”. Erwitt just has this amazing wit, which I love this wit is coupled with unique compositions and viewpoints. His photographs enable us to See Thing Different