How a single photo can change history

How a single photo can change history

Each year, a staggering 2.5 trillion photos are shared and stored online. We take photos to communicate how we feel and bond with others. From selfies to screenshots, we snap and send several times a day. We’re so cavalier about photography that it’s easy to forget that photos are, and always have been, historical documents.

The new radio series Shooting the Past refocuses us on the pivotal part photos play in history. Hosted by Dr Clare Wright, Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow in History at La Trobe, the series offers us Australian history through a new lens. Each episode takes a single photograph and asks ‘what’s going on in this picture?’

Clare shares how photos help us interrogate the way things were, so we can understand the way things are.

Opening us to the ideas of others

Shooting the Past centres around the idea of inclusivity, and in particular a desire to show the validity of different points of view. Each photograph analysed allows a view of the past that’s open to interpretation by different people in different ways.

“In Shooting the Past, I describe what I find intriguing, problematic or unexpected about this picture. Then I find three people who will help me answer those questions. One is a layperson, one is an historian and the other person is an expert, someone with another professional interest. I ask them what they see in the photograph. And everybody sees something different,” Clare says.

“What photographs do is problematise a very linear, black and white viewing of the past. Photographs are a far more democratic form of evidence, because we can all look at a photo and interpret it in a different way.”

Writing people back into history

Clare’s work is driven by an interest in how history erases different perspectives and experiences. It aims to bring the viewpoints of women, indigenous people and ethnic groups back into history literature and popular consciousness.

Photographs are essential evidence in this process. Clare describes how, in researching her book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, a photo verified a previously unnoticed woman at the heart of the Eureka Stockade.

“Sarah Hanmer was a woman who came up over and over again in the archives, newspapers and court reports. She was an incredibly important figure on the Ballarat goldfields, but she’d never been written about in any of the history books. Her presence had been utterly overlooked,” Clare says.

“She became a central player in my story. But I had no visual picture to put to the other documentary evidence.”

A few years into her research, Clare was contacted by a descendent of Sarah Hanmer, who sent her a photograph of the woman herself. For Clare, the effect was akin to writing someone back into history.

“It turned Sarah Hanmer into a living person. She became completely real to me. It’s funny what having a photograph does in terms of solidifying that person’s presence and authenticity. That was important to my research.”

Sarah Hanmer. Image credit: Lorraine Brownlie.
Sarah Hanmer. Image credit: Lorraine Brownlie.

Helping us tell stories

Today, we have new ways of writing people back into history. Remix culture has fostered a genre of recreated original photos, where siblings remake childhood photos, photographers reunite their subjects 30 years later, and Instagram users compete to recreate iconic photos.

“It’s a wonderful way of viewing both the continuities and the changes across time. There’s something quite poetic about it,” says Clare.

These transformations of people and place are the stuff of story, which Clare says is at the heart of studying history.

“We all love and need stories. They’re the first thing we know. We sit on our parents’ laps, or our grandparents’ laps, and they read us stories. Stories are really deeply embedded in our neural pathways, they’re what connects human beings,” Clare says.

“Historians are essentially storytellers. History is telling stories about our past, about how people and communities have changed over time, how events change people and how people change events.”

For this reason, Clare encourages all storytellers to study history. As a broadcaster, TV documentary-maker and award-winning author, Clare is a living example of how studying history can lead to a variety of storytelling careers.

“History is a great background for journalism. It gives you a broad understanding about people, place, events, the world, your backyard, human beings, their motivations, hopes, dreams and desires. Because people in the past, while they weren’t the same as us, they were still people,” she says.

“We’re all making history. We’re all part of the story. And once you understand that you can make history, the reason why to study history becomes quite self-evident.”

Master the story of your past by studying History at La Trobe University.

Dr Clare Wright

Dr Clare Wright is an Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow in History at La Trobe, ARC Future Fellow, broadcaster, TV documentary-maker and award-winning author.