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Using Your Photography to Create Social Change

There are images that immediately come to mind if someone mentions them. For instance, the image of the man being shot in the head during the Vietnam War, or the girl running naked down the road (also in Vietnam) after being burned by a napalm bomb. I don’t want to use the word iconic, but they are well-known, and very emotive images. The Vietnam War was like no other, and these images helped to show the devastation.

An image of an event, or a place, can create a lot more connection than written words or stories; humans are visual and we relate to visual cues. But images don’t have to be about war to generate a response from people.

In late-1970s Australia, the government wanted to dam part of a river in Tasmania. It was something that upset many people. It would mean that many parts of stunning rainforests in the area would be drowned and lost forever. When I think back to that time, there is a beautiful image of the place that immediately comes to mind. It is an image of the river by photographer Peter Dombrovskis, and its catchphrase was that it would be submerged by the dam.


Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, South West Tasmania, by Peter Dombrovskis, National Library of Australia, an6631500 (Bib ID#2899361)

Here I am 30 years later, and this image is still strong in my mind; it says, “This image stopped the Franklin Dam”. Images can very powerful. Who wouldn’t want to have an image that changed the world – well, at least helped save a small part of it? With so many images in existence now, it may be hard to imagine that any could have the same impact. With the world of digital perhaps we are in image overload.

It doesn’t mean you can’t try. There is no reason why you can’t highlight a cause that you are passionate about, using your photography.

In the area around where I live, there is a large green belt that follows the Yarra River, which is the main source of water for the City of Melbourne. It is wonderful that the land has been preserved and not given up to development. Parts of the area were still being farmed until very recently, around 2o years ago.


Morning Light over Banyule Flats. The area has been allowed to return to its natural state as it would have appeared over 250 years ago.

Part of the area is a swamp (wetland) and was here before European Settlement. Once the land was claimed, the swamp was drained and the water course moved so it didn’t fill anymore. Fences were put up, and cattle grazed there for over 150 years.


Early Autumn Mists on the Water.

Eventually, the land was sold to the local council, and they have helped the area recover over the last 20 years by revegetation, and putting the water course back, so the swamp would fill again. It did – and it has become a place rich with native birds and plants. The fence posts are still there, but the trees that grew while it was dry have since died from being waterlogged.

The area is ecologically and communally important and is in constant use – but there is a problem. Banyule Flats is situated right in the middle of where they want to connect two freeways. This is an area that I love and want to help protect, so I started thinking about how I could use my photography to help stop the freeway.


Winter Sun Casting Long Shadows.

My first thought was to start putting photos up on my blog. If I could get people from around the world to build a connection with Banyule Flats, perhaps I could get a whole lot more people to fight for its survival.

About 12 months ago my local council, Banyule City Council, was offering Environment Grants and I wondered if I could get one to do a book on the area using my photography. I rang the coordinator for the grants and spoke to her about my idea for the book. She seemed to really love it, and gave me ideas of what to put in the proposal. I had to join the Warringal Conservation Society to be eligible for it, but that was never a problem, and I have loved being a member.

The grant was approved, and I will use the photos I have been taking for two years now. It is time to put the book together and work out what is the best way to present the images. We can’t just put them all together with no story because, it has to be interesting.  It has to be done in a way that people find not only beautiful, but helps build a connection to the area so they won’t want to see it destroyed.

This is an opportunity to use photography to bring about social change. If you can help people build a relationship or feel something for a cause, then that gives you a lot more people who want to fight for it with you. Your case becomes stronger, and there’s power in numbers.


Cattle Egret Surveying the Water Below. One of many birds that inhabit the area.

One thing that is happening with the book on Banyule Flats is that we are inviting the Wurundjeri Elders and people to be involved. They are the traditional owners of this land, and having their input will help highlight the area, give the book a unique look, and help showcase part of their culture. Of course, I will not take advantage of them and will make sure that proper credit is given, and they will get a share in the royalties as well.

If we can make the book show off the area, we hope that more local people will get involved in the fight for the Flats, and we can then introduce the area to a much wider, potentially worldwide, community.

The book is going to be visual, have lots of photos throughout showing the area through the seasons, and contain big landscapes, as well as macro images of the flora that grow there. The photos have to be powerful to get our message accross: there will be no freeway through Banyule.


Bottle Brush. One of the indigenous plants at Banyule Flats.

Images are very strong. If I just tell you about the area then you are not going to want to protect it, but if I show you what it looks like then you start to feel a connection. Beauty has to be seen, and that is where photography becomes very powerful.

Think back to causes you have felt very passionate about. Do you think of them in words, or in images?


Sunrise Around the Back of Banyule Flats.

When I think about the Vietnam War, images come to my mind, like the two I already mentioned. The Franklin Dam project was one of the first major campaigns that I have a really good memory of.  The image of the Franklin River gave people an understanding of what they were going to lose if the dam went ahead.

If you have a cause that you want to assist or save, use your photography to help. Get the best photos that you can, and show people what you want them to see. The stronger your photography is, the better the effect it will have. You want to create images that people will remember. In the years to come when people talk about Banyule Flats and how we stopped the freeway, I want them to think of my images in the book.

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Leanne Cole
Leanne Cole

graduated from the VCA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Melbourne, Australia. She has since been working as a practicing artist and teaching people how to be Fine Art Photographers. She also teaches long exposure photography and runs workshops around Melbourne. Click here to download her 10 tips for Long Exposure Photography in the City. You can find her on her website.

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