When the view through a lens can change lives

It's not just tribes buried deep in the rainforest who fear the camera as a stealer of souls. A thinker as sophisticated as the French philosopher Roland Barthes called photographers "agents of death". I've never felt that. Instead, the response galvanised by the best photography has always struck me as remarkably life-affirming. It engages the viewer with the truth, and whether the image is appalling or enthralling, it is impossible to remain passive.

I can easily think of photos that changed the way I see things: the burial pits at Auschwitz; the naked Vietnamese girl screaming from napalm burns; the lone man halting tanks outside Tiananmen Square. All testify to the power of the camera. If someone hadn't opened a shutter at the right moment, we would have lost some remarkable incentives to mobilise our moral and political will.

In a speech at the 1997 Mother Jones and Leica Documentary Photography Awards in New York last week, Leonard Nimoy called documentary photography "the dominant tool for social change throughout this century". Since 1989, Mother Jones has been awarding grants to documentary photographers from all over the world whose work on political, environmental and social themes acts as a visual complement to the magazine's written content. Look at the range of work from this year's winners: Nadia Benchallal's coverage of Muslim women's struggle for tolerance in the face of Islamic fundamentalism; Paula Sampaio's report on the construction of the Transamazonia Highway in Brazil; Steve Hart's intimate record of the effect of Aids on one family in the South Bronx; Mohammed Eslami-Rad's pictures of life inside Iran; Paul Oloko's study of the effect of famine on children in Africa; Wu Jailin's 10-year project detailing life in the mountain culture of Yunnan, China; and Ljalja Kuznetsova's series "From the Life of Gypsies".

The Lifetime Achievement Award winner was Peter Magubane, South Africa's leading press photographer. Through the years of apartheid, he says he was "demonstrating with my camera". It is his pictures of South African society that shaped the way we saw that closed world, compelling us to look at things we would otherwise not see at all or perhaps choose to ignore. That challenge is what I find most seductive about photography, though I realise it's also the rationale the fashion industry uses for an aberration such as "heroin chic". Still, there is truth and there is cosmetic illusion and I know which one makes my soul sing.

MOTHER JONES'S 21-year history of independent investigative reporting has set an industry standard, according to the American Journalism Review. One current riveting expose deals with on-line gambling. The US is looking at a $10bn business by the year 2000, and it's a new frontier, populated, just like the old one, by rogues and rubes. Off-shore, unregulated operators can set themselves up as virtual croupiers to fleece punters more effectively than ever anywhere in the world! Casino games, sporting events and lotteries are available to people who wouldn't be caught dead gambling in public and, with compulsive gambling already being called "the hidden addiction" comparable to crack in its hold over players, it's hard to imagine that the easy access offered by the Internet will do other than suck in millions more addicts, particularly among the young who already feel comfortable living life on-line. And never mind on-line gambling: who will save us from the in-seat wagers some airlines are promising on long-haul flights?

SOME SAGE once said that we progress purely to perfect our vices. And that was before the Internet arrived to encourage indulgence of our most mindlessly reductive tendencies. Call me a Luddite - I'd be quite happy if you did - but the Net strips sex of any eroticism. Still, in that, I guess it is just reflecting the society that created it.

Most of our compassion, vitality and feeling for nature has been drained by relegating sex to the social gutter. I think it's quite obvious the trouble we've got ourselves into by separating spirit and flesh. The schism is worst in the US. Witness the kerfuffle over adulterers in the armed forces. And The Body Shop has taken some flak for its recent "Fake It!" poster, which shows a he-man with a bottle of self-tanning lotion stuffed down his trunks. In the malls which are insisting on the poster's removal, we share space with lingerie shops whose windows are lined with images of semi-dressed, pneumatic-chested women.

The critics (all of them male, curiously enough) who cry "Double standard" at The Body Shop are missing the point on all fronts, but what can you expect in a society where sex is sidelined as taboo? Many more people take offence at the sight of a naked body than at images of starving or maimed children, even though it's obvious which is more fundamental to life. We talk about the blessings of the spirit and sins of the flesh, when it ought to be the reverse we're celebrating. I suppose religion can take the blame for the mix-up, but there was a time when religion offered an ecstatic route to the heart of desire. Look at religious erotic art, for God's sake. When we lost religion, we lost the knack of desire.

I've been reading a writer named Thomas Moore who very cogently points out that pornography has filled the void. His antidote is simple but demanding. If we can learn from sex to be loyal to our desires rather than to arid disciplines, we can re-eroticise our lives. Moore takes care to point out that taking account of desire is not the same as doing whatever we feel like (which is plain old irresponsibility). He sees it as a way to reintroduce intimacy to the everyday in, for example, a genuine sense of community. Compassion is critical. After all, sex can be a messy business at the best of times. But who can dispute the desired end - "to make a culture that gives us pleasure rather than one that merely works"?