"the amount of effort, science, hope, manpower, time, EVERYTHING that went into capturing that image is beyond my comprehension" (NASA – Sunset on Mars)
"I can not imagine what this man is thinking" (Image from Congo Free State under Leopold II – A father stares at the hands of his five year-old daughter, which were severed as a punishment for having harvested too little caoutchouc/rubber)
"It’s so symbolic of what religion is supposed to be, rather than the constant hate that is aired by extremists from both parties." (Nevine Zaki – Egyptian Christians form a human shield to protect Muslims as they pray during violent protests)
"BRB crying forever." (Tom Stoddart – A well nourished Sudanese man steals maize from a starving child during a food distribution at Medecins Sans Frontieres feeding centre at Ajiep, southern Sudan, in 1998)
"[NSFW – Boobs. Really great boobs]" "DONT WORRY REDDIT THIS ONE IS THE GOOD KIND OF NSFW" (source unknown – Muslim women protesting France burqa ban)
"This picture moves me. Every person – from the disinterested businessman in the back, the defiant parents, the confused kids- all of them say so much to me." (Builder Levy – Demonstrators at the Harlem Peace March to End Racial Oppression, 1967.)
"Jesus. That’s the one photo so far that’s properly affected me – I feel physically sick." (Kevin Carter – A vulture lands near a child trying to reach a feeding center in Sudan)
"Every point of light in that image is a galaxy." "It’s all too much." (NASA – Ultra Deep Field picture by Hubble)
"I held it together for the first link, then clicked yours and fucking lost it." (Aaron Thompson – Choking back tears, Christian Golczynski accepted the flag from his father’s casket.)
"The level of calmness on the monks face in the burning picture is something I will never even come close to. He looks more sure of himself in that decision than I have for anything I have ever done. Even as an active protester I just see this as the ultimate sacrifice for a cause. Thanks for posting this pic." (Malcolm Browne – Self immolation of Thích Quang Ðuc)
I’m always fascinated to learn how people outside of the insular photo community interact with and relate to photography, especially photojournalism. This Reddit thread, posted to the AskReddit subsection of the site, offers just such a glimpse into how (a section of) the public reacts to imagery, focusing on “powerful” photos. The gallery presented above collects the 10 most popular images in the thread and the most popular opinion posted in reply to those images. I’ve added caption and photographer information where I could find it.
The initial poster posed the question “Reddit, what is the most powerful photo you have ever seen?” and, to start off the discussion, offered this image of a monk praying for a dead man in a Chinese train station. This Reddit thread is particularly notable because of its popularity: the thread was featured on the front page of Reddit (no small feat for a site that receives thousands and thousands of posts each day), was posted to one of the most popular subsections (with 1.2 million subscribers), and, as of my writing, the thread had a total score upwards of 1200 and nearly 4000 comments. It’s a very popular post, to say the least.
The demographics of Reddit are hard to know, but a few attempts have been made. The site’s users are about 80% male, are 80% American, are middle class, have some college education, and are under 35 (most under 25). That doesn’t mean the respondents in the thread fit into this demographic, but it’s a good approximation.
So, taking a few assumptions, the thread shows us the types of pictures that young, educated, American men find important, powerful, and interesting. This is a demographic for which much of our culture is targeted and which I’m sure many magazines and newspapers would love to appeal to.
This selection is striking to me for a few reasons. One, it’s a pretty interesting collection of images from a community whose stock and trade is usually closer to LOLcats and “fail” pictures (~1.5 million subscribers) than great visual journalism (~400 subscribers). Two, it includes some very subtle pictures, especially those by NASA and those focusing on political tensions. The image of the sunset on Mars, in particular, is a wonderful surprise and a sensitive choice. It’s certainly not an “obvious” picture; the image speaks deeply about humanity’s role in the universe, but in a less clear way than, perhaps, The Blue Marble. Three, there are no images from Iraq or Afghanistan (the boy receiving the flag from his father’s casket comes close) and few from the US. The selection reflects some very contemporary events, but few are directly related the community’s own experience. Four, at least half of the images aren’t the sort that win awards, though a few here are from the canon of photojournalism (including the colorized self-immolation picture). In spite of that, the images communicate quite powerfully. Content is king.
Most of all, this selection gives me hope that strong imagery still has the power to reach out to the public, even sections of the public which may have been written off by publications desperate to hang on to their aging and dwindling audiences. Quiet and emotive imagery still resonates with the young and digital audience raised on the never-not-breaking-news cycle.