• Carlos Portfolio


Associate Research Fellow

Department of Politics Birkbeck, University of London


Social documentary photography as a medium of representation

Throughout history societies have represented themselves and their social environment in symbols and images. The image as a visual language of representation has played an important role in the development and transformation of society.

From the moment the image in the square box was fixed, photographers began expressing ideas through their work. A portrait reflects the social class of the person, and more importantly, the social vision of the photographer.

Social documentary photography is a mediator between time and history, society and the personal. Photography is the spirit of memory and the philosophical materiality of the history of society.

Photography is political and ideological affecting social consciousness and creating public opinion. Who represents, who is represented, and why are they represented? Images have been used to impose, transform, or keep the hegemonic ideology of the elite. Regardless of ideology, art plays a social role in society to deny or reassert a social reality.

Some of the questions I will address are: how can social and economic injustice be represented by social documentary photographers? Can photography be an instrument for social change? Should ethics be at the heart of social documentary photography?


Carlos Reyes-Manzo studied photography with Bob Borowicz and cinematography with Rafael Sánchez SJ at the Film Institute of the Catholic University of Chile from 1962 to 1965. At the same time he began working as a photojournalist and social documentary photographer for a number of magazines including Revista Vea. From 1971 until the military coup in 1973 he worked in the 16mm Department of Chile Films. All his photographs from 1960 to 1974 were confiscated by the military regime when he was detained in June 1974. Projects from this period include San Antonio fishermen, port workers and farmworkers and their families, people living in tenements in Santiago, the political campaigns of Salvador Allende.

Exiled to Panama in September 1975, he worked for Agencia EFE, Associated Press and the media department of the Catholic Church covering social and political issues including the Nicaraguan revolution, the civil war in San Salvador and the campaign for the handover of the Panama Canal.

He arrived in Britain in 1979 after being kidnapped in Panama by the Chilean secret police. Projects and exhibitions over the last thirty years include: Latin America five hundred years after the Spanish conquest; the 1984 Ethiopia famine; the people of South Africa in 1994 during the first democratic elections; the people of Iraq focusing on the Christian communities in 2002 after ten years of sanctions, and in 2003 and 2004 after the allied invasion; the people of Afghanistan in 2002 after the US invasion; MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians) projects in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine; documenting Inuit communities in Nunavut for the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada; social, economic, political issues and the effects of neoliberal economic policies in Britain.


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