In the early 20th century, documentary photographers, Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, exposed the horrors of child labor and poor living conditions across the United States through the tool of photography. Decades later, Danny Lyon and other documentary photographers looked toward their predecessors’ work in capturing social inequalities and the public’s demands for change. As technology and news reporting advanced in the mid-20th century, the use of photography as a documentary tool increased rapidly. Cameras were more portable and no longer used solely by highly-trained professionals. Images captured by photographers revealed the reality of American life as it unfolded in front of the lens. Photographs of civil unrest were printed in newspapers and circulated both nationally and internationally.
“Cesar Chavez really knew the value of photography… He was very visually aware…To an extent that few realized, much of what the National Farm Worker Association did was conceived with the idea of shaping the visual record to their advantage. Everyone had cameras.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), established in 1960, recognized the power that photography had in advancing their cause. By hiring photographers to capture purposeful images to disseminate across the United States, SNCC sought to create visual images they felt were true to the Civil Rights Movement, rather than the images spread by mainstream media.
In response to the sudden influx of real-time documentary photography, legislation was passed in order to prohibit the presence of cameras in times of rising tensions. Acknowledging the power that photographs had in swaying public opinion, a Chicago court order was issued, which banned all photography and public broadcasting outside of the Federal Building during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.