NIU alumnus speaks on photojournalism Friday

Photojournalist Chris Birks

Photojournalist Chris Birks

By Lauren Dielman

Photojournalism plays a large role in shaping public opinion, NIU alumnus Chris Birks said during a speech Friday in DuSable Hall.

Birks earned a master’s degree in communication from NIU and currently teaches in Benedictine’s University’s Department of Communication. He received more than 30 national journalism awards and advocates change in the world by public speaking.

When it comes to public opinion, Birks said photography can play a pivotal role in influencing how people feel about issues. He illustrated his point with some examples.

One such example Birks discussed was Abu Ghraib and how it greatly contributed to the change in Americans’ opinion on the Iraq War. Abu Ghraib was a prison used by Saddam Hussein and later was taken over by the U.S. military to house prisoners.

Before Abu Ghraib, Birks said 75 percent of the American public felt as though sending troops to Iraq wasn’t a mistake. When the Abu Ghraib photos appeared of American soldiers torturing and mistreating prisoners in 2004, public opinion on the war dramatically shifted.

Birks said this wasn’t entirely because of pictures, but they played a large part.

Birks also spoke about the Mogadishu Massacre in Somalia. There was extreme disorder in 1992 in Somalia, and the U.S. tried to restore law and order. However, this was met at times with resistance. Paul Watson, a journalist, took a photo of an angry mob dragging the body of a U.S. soldier.

“Are you going to commit and have the chance that pictures like this are seen in public?” Birks asked.

Photojournalism allows people to be aware of what is going on in the world, Birks said.

“The power of photojournalism is to make us feel, the ability to move us,” Birks said. “The important element is change. For better or for worse, photography changes things. Photojournalism can inspire you to act, can inspire you to do something.”

For aspiring journalists, Birks gave a two-step piece of advice: “Shine the light, change the world.”

Neal Heatherly, communications graduate student, said he enjoyed Birks’ presentation.

“I knew nothing about Somalia,” Heatherly said. “There were a lot of parallels between that and Abu Ghraib.”