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What Matters

Photography that challenges us to make a difference.

By Mary Knox Merrill / December 10, 2008



(To see images from this and other photo books reviewed by the Monitor, click  here.) The collection of photo essays created by David Elliot Cohen in What Matters (Sterling, 336 pp., $27.95) holds an unforgiving mirror up to some of the most critical issues of our time. From AIDS to global warming to oil addiction and material opulence, photojournalists and writers force us to look into uncomfortable daily realities around the world.

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It is difficult to look through James Nachtwey’s disturbing images of poverty in Africa and Shehzad Noorani’s photographs of child labor in Bangladesh. Contrast these scenes with Lauren Greenfield’s images of hyper-consumer lifestyles in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and the message is clear: Very few people own most of the world’s assets.

Contributing author Omer Bartov describes the viewing experience best when he says, “These photographs tell a truth we would rather not know.

They have the power to take us to places we will never visit, show us sights we hope never to see. Yet they also become part of our vocabulary of images, linking in our minds different epochs and geographies, making connections between otherwise unrelated events....”

Once past the initial shock of the images and with the help of accompanying essays by changemakers such as global poverty warrior Jeffrey Sachs and environmentalist Bill McKibben, this book is a celebration of the power of photography to redirect our destructive course.

For more than a hundred years, documentary photography has swayed opinion and provoked action, even if it also aroused anger.

Cohen reminds readers in his introduction of how Lewis Hine’s images of juvenile factory workers in New York (1908-1912) drove the expansion of labor laws in the US and how, when Eddie Adams captured the execution of a Viet Cong terrorist in 1968, public outrage hastened the end of the Vietnam War.

And so the question remains: What are we going to do about today’s inequities?

An appendix of 193 resources and organizations working to alleviate modern global challenges helps to soothe a reader’s feelings of powerlessness in the face of such expansive worldwide suffering. Cohen dares you to believe that one person can make a difference.

Despite advances in technology and the allure of multimedia, still photography remains a powerful vehicle to send a message.

And with the shrinking number of newsprint pages available, this book offers an outlet for forgotten or overlooked stories. It is a testament to the power of photography to rouse viewers to think beyond themselves.

Mary Knox Merrill is a Monitor staff photographer.

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