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The impact of photography on public opinion

Photography is a powerful tool and/or art form. It can move us to act, and bring far away tragedies onto our kitchen tables or desktops. What brought this to mind this morning specifically was a photo gallery spread on Wired Science about photos of pollution from the 1970s that really got people moving on environmental issues.

Two years after Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, the new institution sent out 100 photographers to document the nation’s environment writ large.

Now, those photos have made it out of the root cellar of the National Archive and onto Flickr Commons, where they are getting a wider viewing than they’ve ever received. The first group of what will become a 15,000-photo set from the Documerica project are now available online to the public.

The photographers were charged with three broad goals: “to photograph America’s environmental problems, to document America’s natural and man-made beauty and to photograph the human condition.”

The original director of the EPA project, Gifford Hampshire, hoped to recreate the success the Depression-era Farm Security Administration had in calling attention to the plight of the nation’s rural poor. The new target was the environment. The visual evidence of the nation’s various pollution problems would help justify the existence of the EPA.

But as it happened, the photographers interpreted their task in different ways. What they captured was not simply a portrait of “nature,” but the environment as people knew it and lived in it.

“Documerica’s official mission effectively focused on popular but valid environmental concerns of the early 1970s: water, air and noise pollution; unchecked urbanization; poverty; environmental impact on public health; and youth culture of the day,” wrote archivist C. Jerry Simmons, in a 2009 article on the collection. “But in reaction to the varied pollution, health and social crises, Documerica succeeded also in affirming America’s commitment to solving these problems by capturing positive images of human life and Americans’ reactions, responses and resourcefulness.”

Traffic jams, noise pollution from jackhammers and 747s, and graffiti appear alongside photos of caribou and western landscapes. Coal mining and mudslides mingle with swimming, movie theaters and greased-pig chases.

It’s a remarkable portrait of the early 1970s, when manufacturing still ruled the economy and environmental laws had just begun to regulate the air and water. The photographs show people, technology and biosphere colliding, producing both devastating consequences and innovative solutions.

Photo: Marc St. Gil/National Archives and Records Administration

See the collection of these powerful photos.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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