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Public Health Rep. 2008 Sep-Oct; 123(5): 552.
PMCID: PMC2496948


I fail to find the commentary of Johansen et al. with regard to my photographic essay on leprosy constructive. The arts, and in this instance photography, have the capacity to serve as a bridge between medicine and the community. Photography has no simple meaning; rather, it serves as a metaphor for things that are transient. In the case of my photographic essay on leprosy, it simply reflects an important aspect of the community.1

According to photographer Susan Sontag, “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture.”2 The camera may tell us what we already know or substantiate conclusions we may have reached through study methodologies. A photograph may also stir us to action to study conditions shown in images. It is precisely the disability associated with leprosy that is important to my images. This disability remains hidden and impacts millions. Photography helps change an abstract reality into something we believe is solid—a camera testifies and serves as an expert witness. I seriously doubt that my primary mission in taking these images has not been well-served in pointing to the disability associated with leprosy.

Citing the American Journal of Public Health, “The shock felt in the face of others suffering, the fact that change demands more than rational analysis. It requires experience.” Photographs provide us a surrogate experience and, unlike even the most carefully detailed painting, we believe photographs. It is unclear what it means to say an image is “stereotypical.” Certainly there is no part of reality that is deceptive and there are no images that unfairly portray a serious problem, but perhaps not every problem and every condition. Indeed, no single essay can accomplish this goal.

Leprosy was and still is a disabling disease. Citing a noted photo historian, “The power of the photograph to change events is randomly bestowed and does not include the power to control them.”3 If these images portray individuals who are disabled, perhaps it is because they have suffered and continue to do so. Living conditions remain poor, medical care may be sporadic, decent work is hard to find, and communities remain isolated. While this may be unjust and wrong, social documentary photography plays an important role in the documentation of injustice.


1. Parker DL. Leprosy: a photographic essay. Public Health Rep. 2008;123:225–33. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Sontag S. On photography. New York: Picador Press; 2001.
3. Images in public health. Am J Public Health. 2003;93:1626–9. [PubMed]
4. Goldberg V. The power of photography: how photographs changed our lives. New York: Abbeville Press; 1991. p. 188.

Articles from Public Health Reports are provided here courtesy of Association of Schools of Public Health