Can a photograph change the world?

Photojournalist Eros Hoagland's extensive work in conflict zones includes coverage of Mexico's drug wars.

Story highlights

  • New online miniseries "Conflict" explores role of photojournalists in conflict zones
  • "I don't believe that photojournalism is a very important job," one photographer says
  • But another says, "I believe that photographs have the power to change many things"

(CNN)History is replete with iconic images -- a man standing up to a column of tanks in Beijing, a Vietnamese officer shooting a man in the head, soldiers taking the beaches of Normandy.

But do those pictures result in real change, or are they representations of facts and nothing more?
In Eddie Adams' 1968 photo, South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a suspected Viet Cong.
    "I don't believe that photojournalism is a very important job," says war photojournalist Eros Hoagland in one of the episodes. "My pictures and the pictures of my colleagues, they don't really change anything. So let's not pretend like they do.
    "You want to help people? Become a doctor and work in some poor neighborhood where people can't afford health care. That's how you help people."
    After a career covering conflict from the drug wars in Mexico to war in Iraq, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday that enough may be enough.
    "I can't say what will happen in the future," he said. "But it just doesn't really seem worth it anymore, now that I have someone who is completely dependent on me.
    "I'm raising a child. So that's kind of a full-time job right now."
    In the series, he says, "I didn't do it to change the world. I realized pretty quickly that the world really doesn't want to be changed. It's going to work on its own time cycle. And my pictures are certainly a drop in the bucket to that. A drop in the ocean."
    Those remarks stand in stark contrast to another photographer featured in the series, Donna Ferrato, who for decades has covered one of the most hidden forms of conflict: domestic abuse.
    "I believe that photographs have the power to change many things -- change laws, change the minds of society, change people," she told Amanpour.
    "It's not just about go in, take some pictures and then move away. I spend usually two or three years at a time with my subjects.
    Hoagland and Ferrato speak with Amanpour
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    "This woman, Elizabeth, I've been photographing her for 33 years."
    To see the naked truth exposed by some of her photos, it's hard to believe how they couldn't have some tangible impact.
    In one series, with a couple, Garth and Lisa, she documents, frame by frame, a husband striking down his wife in their bathroom.
    "When he went to hit her again," she says in the series, "I grabbed his arm and I said, 'What the hell are you doing? You're going to hurt her. Stop it, what are you doing?'
    "And he just threw me off, and he said, 'Look it, she's my wife.' "
    Investing so much in her subjects, Ferrato has become far more than a simple documentarian; in that sense, she has helped to ensure that her photos really do have the ability to change the world.
    "I'm a social activist," she told Amanpour. "I believe that these stories are about breaking the cycle of abuse. And that's why I get so deeply involved with every family."
    One photo more than any other, she says in the series, represents the hope she sees in so much despair.
    "I'm always going to gravitate toward things that I've seen that give me a lot of hope, and that picture of Diamond standing up to his father and saying, 'I hate you for hitting my mother and don't you ever come back to my house' -- I mean, that's the picture that I, I really want to think about when I close my eyes at night."
    But for Hoagland, it's been too much.
    "My dad died. My buddy Joao lost both of his legs. My buddy Jim lost his head," he says in the series, shaking his head.
    "I did it. I did it well. Now it's time to move on. Move on to the next thing. I feel a hell of a lot better for it."