A man in the Congo stares at the severed hand and foot of his wife and daughter, 1902.
Photo by Alice Seely Harris.
In the history of mankind -- taking the long view -- a few inventions stand out: fire; agriculture; writing; warfare; industrial power; medicine. In that broad scheme, the photo is highly underrated in its power to change world history. Before news became instant via Twitter, CNN, smartphones, etc., the world was a much larger place. Artocities were carreid out in distant regions out of the prying eyes of the world.
And the world didn't notice.
Alice Seely Harris was an English missionary with the Congo. Harris took photos documenting atrocities carried out by the Congo authorities in their haste to maximize profits from the rubber trade. In essence, she waged the first photographic campaign in support of human rights.
And the world did notice.
Harris's famous 1902 photograph above is one of the first examples in history of the power of mass media to change public opinion and culture. Her pictures created a media movement, and among its first members was Mark Twain, perhaps the most famous and influential person on the planet at the time.
There is always a suspicion that details about atrocities are sensationally exaggerated. Besides, they are abstractions, until you actually confront them with your own eyes. Photographs tell their story with brutal, unblinking fidelity. Once you have seen images like these, you are changed. The truth cannot be ignored or denied.
In 1905 Mark Twain published King Leopold's Soliloquy , a pamphlet. Its subject is King Léopold's rule over the Congo Free State. Leopold bemoans the difficulties caused him by the evidence of the camera -- Harris's camera. Twain has him lament: "The Kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy that has confronted us.... The only witness I have encountered in my long career that I couldn't bribe."
Severed limbs in your living room cannot be ignored.
But I wonder if, in the century since then, we have become immune to such images? Immune to shock? Today we see the starvation, war, brutality, atrocities, but do we care? Just a question. Go see what's trending on Twitter right now. There's your answer.
Photo by Alice Seely Harris
Steve Cebalt, Highview LLC www.highviewhelp.com Be sure to subscribe using the icon in the upper-right margin, or via e-mail or RSS! Or follow me on Twitter to receive links to all new posts. Follow @SteveCebalt What do YOU think? Click the "Comment" button below and tell us! View Steve Cebalt's profile