Photo L.A. Proves That Artists Make Excellent Activists

The work of photographers like Tish Lampert is worth far more than a thousand words

Photo L.A., the four-day international photography extravaganza hosted at LA Mart downtown, wrapped up over the weekend. The spectrum of works showcased was broad in scope—covering everything from vintage vernacular to fashion to rock and roll—but the emphasis on photography as activism took center stage. According to art critic and Photo L.A. curator Shana Nys Dambrot, the medium of photography lends itself to prompting social change, even if it does require a deeper level of commitment from the photographer.

“There’s a lot of artists who say, ‘I’m lucky enough to make a living with my imagination,’” said Dambrot. “Now what if I put that into a service that also means something to me as a human?”

The use of photography as a tool for change is far from new (think of Dorothea Lange’s images of Depression-era families), but that kind of social justice-informed image-making is increasingly prevalent. With a rise in the number of press photographers and more opportunity for anyone with an iPhone to call themselves a photographer, pictures are being used as a mode of activism more than ever before.

Take Tish Lampert, a photographer who has worked with the United Nations documenting protests and human rights investigations. Among many other things, she has covered the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, the Cesar Chavez movement for migrant workers’ rights, and the work of the National Organization for Women. Lampert discovered that photography can quickly become activism when no one else is capturing the turmoil of the lives being affected.

Lampert’s 14 years documenting citizens exercising their First Amendment rights has led to the creation of her book America Speaks and has also served as the foundation of her friendship with Anwarul Chowdhury, UN Ambassador Secretary and champion of women’s rights. Chowdhury was also present at Photo L.A., and he spoke alongside Lampert about photography’s role in international peace talks.

“I believe that images play a very important role in carrying initiative,” Chowdhury said. “Tish’s photos have been a wonderful representation of the culture of peace.”