The Photograph as Witness

During the 19th century photographers used the camera to create a visual record of the world, generating a mass of images that documented people and places. As time progressed photographers started to document wars, important historical events, and everyday life with the camera. The early 20th century brought the first documentary photographers who exposed social and economic inequalities around the world, with the intention of generating change through their images.

Images of war are among the most emotionally powerful documentary photographs. They bear witness to conflict and destruction. They provide proof of crucial historical moments and events. They allow us as viewers to visually see war without being there. And, they have the ability to move us to action.


Photographs have the powerful ability to reflect the social and political climate in which they were made. The photographs in this section have documented the atmosphere of American society. Their photographs reveal the energy of America, document its changing sense of style, and illustrate the shifting cultural and social landscape.


Photography is characterized by its ability to depict reality. In the instantaneous capture of a moment in time, photographs have the ability to immediately take us to a place or event. Using the power of the camera, social documentary photographers not only act as witnesses, but also create visual commentaries.


Documenting one’s family has been practiced by photographers since the invention of photography in 1839. The artists in this section work close to home, photographing the people around them. The images come to represent both the everyday and the personal. They are witnesses of lives lived.

Funding for this project was provided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a donation from PhotoWings.