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Photography as Witness

Photographs of news stories and major events can often shape collective memory and how history is written and understood.


Gilles Peress
(French, born 1946)

1994. Gelatin silver print, 36 x 55" (91.4 x 139.7 cm)

Since 1971, French photographer and photojournalist Gilles Peress has been traveling the world to document conflicts, revolutions, wars, and the people swept up within these events. For him, speaking and writing are limiting modes of expression, while photography is a much freer and more open form of language. Photography “allowed me to deal with reality without using words,” he has said.1 Driving Peress, and underlining his unflinching images, is a fundamental question about the nature of humankind: Are we good or evil?

In 1994, Peress traveled to Rwanda, when that country was ravaged by the genocidal conflict in which dominant Hutu forces murdered hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. His photographs—of weapons, abandoned belongings, the survivors, and the dead—were published in a searing book titled, The Silence, in reference to (and condemnation of) the silence of the Western nations who had the power to halt this genocide. Among these images is Untitled, a portrait of an injured boy in a hospital near a concentration camp. With watery eyes, the boy gazes directly into the camera’s lens and, by extension, at the viewer. “A photograph is an open text in which half of the message, or half of the text, is in you and how you read it,” Peress has said.2

Gilles Peress, quoted in Carole Kismaric, “Gilles Peress,” BOMB,
Gilles Peress, quoted in Carole Kismaric, “Gilles Peress,” BOMB,
Gilles Peress, U.S. News, October 6, 1997
Gilles Peress, quoted in Carole Kismaric, “Gilles Peress,” BOMB,

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

A type of journalism that uses photographs to tell a news story.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

Gathering Evidence
Peress is known for not shying away from showing the truly gruesome violence human beings have inflicted upon each other. His photographs can be extremely difficult to look at. “I don’t care so much anymore about ‘good photography,’” he has said, “I am gathering evidence for history.”3

Through the Lens of Reality
More interested in photography as a means of engaging with the world than as an art form, Peress has stated: “For me, photography’s not about finished images or even a finished book or installation. It’s the process by which I understand and I formalize relationships with the world. For me, it’s a very humble process. One of the most humbling realities in the process is the multiplicity of authorship. I am an author; the camera is an author; the viewer looking at the picture is an author; reality is an author, and reality has a way of speaking the loudest.”4


AUDIO: Listen to Gilles Peress speak on a panel for the exhibition Manet and the Execution of Maxmilian at The Museum of Modern Art