Bearing Witness


The Bearing Witness symposium was held at SFMOMA on March 16, 2014.

Protestors in a smokey street film on cell phones

Protesters Gather For Tahrir Square Rally, November 23, 2011, Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Given the power and pervasiveness of photography in both art and everyday life, what is the significance of the rapid and fundamental changes that the field is undergoing? How have social media, digital cameras, and amateur photojournalism altered the way photographs capture the everyday, define current events, and steer social and political movements? How have photographers responded to these shifting conditions, as well as to the new ways in which images are understood, shared, and consumed? How have our expectations of photography changed?

This symposium considered these questions and assessed the ways in which photography matters now more than ever. Bearing Witness was convened by Erin O'Toole, associate curator of photography, and Dominic Willsdon, Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, SFMOMA.

Director's Welcome

Excerpted from the Bearing Witness program:

Welcome, and thank you for being part of this day of discussion delving into the critical new role of photography in contemporary society.
Four years ago we gathered major thinkers from across the country to consider the question "Is Photography Over?" Given the rise of new technologies and the expanding and changing definition of the field, we wanted to probe what might be lost and what might be gained.

Today's symposium poses a new set of pressing questions, precipitated again by the effects of evolving technology and the ubiquity of photographic images but with this radical shift: the explosive rise of social media in the cultural landscape even in the four years since that last gathering.

We are extremely pleased to welcome an eminent group of scholars, commentators, and photographers from across the field to consider how these changing conditions — most vitally, the ease of producing and distributing pictures instantaneously ― profoundly affect the ways photography is used to communicate about the world around us.

I extend my sincere thanks to the Fraenkel Gallery for their generous support of this series of symposia through the Fund for New Studies in Photography. As an institution with a long-standing commitment to collecting and presenting photography in all its forms, SFMOMA strives to promote dialogue about the role and influence of the medium in our lives, and the fund’s support makes this possible today.

Neal Benezra
Director, SFMOMA


Introduction Erin O'Toole, associate curator of photography, SFMOMA
Keynote Margaret Olin, senior research scholar, Yale University: "Witnessing, Bystanding, Onlooking, Participating"
Session 1
  • Susan Meiselas, photographer, Magnum Photos
  • Zoe Strauss, artist, Magnum Photos
  • Susan Meiselas, Zoe Strauss, and Margaret Olin in conversation with Corey Keller, curator of photography, SFMOMA
Session 2
Session 3
  • Kathy Ryan, director of photography, The New York Times Magazine
  • Benjamin Lowy, photographer
  • Mike Krieger, cofounder, Instagram
  • Kathy Ryan, Benjamin Lowy, and Mike Krieger in conversation


Recorded live on Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. Video: Jim Granato.


The Ethics of Seeing

There’s more to documentary photography than simply capturing the world with a camera. As the artist Susan Meiselas and others explain, the “ethics of seeing” involves connecting, engaging, and feeling compassion for your subjects.