The International Center for Photography’s Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change could not come at a better time. Exploring how images are produced, displayed and distributed, the exhibition asks viewers to consider the impact of images and information on society. Divided into six sections, the show is a powerful reminder that our movements, both physical and virtual, can and have altered the world.
NASA’s iconic 1968 photo of Earth viewed from the moon opens the show. It is a statement that this exhibition is about us; a marker of place–our home–that is increasingly fragile. A mesmerizing clip from James Balog’s 2012 video of a glacier calving in western Greenland is prominently projected nearby. The video, which has been watched over 40 million times on YouTube, is testament to the relevance of mainstream distribution channels and the power of shared viewing experiences.
Throughout this section, and indeed the entire show, the variations in medium prove effective. From Mel Chin’s contemplative 2017 video The Arctic Is Paris in which an Inuit activist softly states that “The world has a mortal fever,” to Prince Ea’s extraordinary short film, 3 Seconds, that provides a hip-hop account of mankind’s hand in environmental destruction, each work expresses the diversity of images and tonalities all advocating for environmental protection. The room powerfully balances poetry with urgency.
THE FLOOD – REFUGEES AND REPRESENTATION
Rhetorically referencing the flood of people fleeing violence with the stream of images documenting their struggles, the next section importantly humanizes the refugee crisis. It includes historical photographs from World War II, images captured by photojournalists, as well as documentation from refugees themselves. Thair Orfahli, a Syrian refugee, recorded interactions on his dangerous boat ride to Italy, showing how a smartphone can give voice to a complicated narrative and enable empathy through documentation.
In the center of this room is Hakan Topal’s standout Untitled (Ocean), a 3D animation and image feed of photographs documenting the refugee crisis, projected on a table of limestone powder. The stark contrast between the fleeting images and the texture of the limestone reminds us that we are seeing tangible experiences. The lives documented are as real as the shores sought.
THE FLUIDITY OF GENDER
From music videos by Young Ma and Justin Vivian Bond, to Instagram photographs by Shoog McDaniel, celebration is the unabashed theme of this section. Here we see gender fluidity nurtured and fought for. Body positivity shines, while the challenges still faced are front and center. The continued activism is encapsulated in queer rapper and writer, Mykki Blanco’s compelling 2016 reading of Zoe Leonard’s 1992 I Want a President.
BLACK LIVES (HAVE ALWAYS) MATTERED
In this perfectly titled section, a wall is lined with historical photographs of African-Americans alongside more recent images like Devin Allen’s 2015 Time cover documenting protests in Baltimore–the contemporary sharing space with the historical to emphasize the continued fight for racial equality. Sheila Pree Bright’s brilliant 2015 video, #1960Now: Art + Intersection, achieves the same goal in a single work–weaving video documentation of recent protests and pop-cultural moments with historical footage. The role of images in creating a visual vocabulary of resistance is at its best here.
PROPAGANDA AND THE ISLAMIC STATE
The final two rooms offer something different. Propaganda and the Islamic State provides a study room for understanding its iconography and image production. This difficult but important collection of media invites us to think even more critically about an image’s truth and its ability to persuade, as well as the Internet’s remarkable effectiveness for circulating such sentiment.
THE RIGHT-WING FRINGE AND THE 2016 ELECTION
This same idea is expressed in the final section, focused on the right’s media coverage of the 2016 presidential election. A slideshow of collected images–most from social media platforms, including Breitbart’s Instagram and @RealDonaldTrump’s tweets–evidence how the combination of image and text, distributed through new media platforms, effectively mobilized votes and propagated extremist viewpoints.
Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change asks us to confront how images are transformed through context and commentary, as well as to reflect on the effectiveness (or non-effectiveness) of their distribution. Pairing historical and contemporary images, viewers are reminded that though the quantity and mediums may have changed, many causes and struggles are constant. And while a video may have received millions of YouTube views, each of us curates our lives, seeking out the images that are meaningful to us–those that we find moving, or educational, or celebratory.
The show provides much to see, yet makes clear that its selection is only a tiny fraction of the images out there that need to be seen. It reinforces the fact that not just photojournalists and artists are creating impactful images. Untrained people, from refugees and scientists, to alt-right groups and terror organizations are creating images with the power to enable change – both for the good and for the terrible. Smartly curated and timelessly relevant, this exhibition is required viewing.
Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change is on view at the International Center of Photography January 27 – May 7, 2017.