To Document or to Photograph
We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures.
Our concept of documentary photography has been strongly formed by photographs, photographers and strategies of the US Farm Security Administration, the agency documenting lives of the poor during the depression era and later creating war propaganda (we keep forgetting the purpose of the FSA as a government run propaganda agency). Some titles of the chapters in a former FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein’s book are most telling in terms of our view of documentary photography: “The Concerned Humanists”, “The Eyewitness Observer” and “The Dignity of the Commonplace”. Here we have the main cliches of the twentieth century photography. The truth, the humanist mission (to correct all the wrongs based on belief of the human nature as good, unselfish and emphatic), the eyewitness as the consciousness of the civilization and finally the beauty and dignity of commonplace, they all constitute the world of photographic happiness. We can still hear the echoes of those principles in our everyday lives, and in the trivialization of ‘the right to know.’
Documentary photography is a complex, contradictory and diverse form of expression, information and propaganda in its practices, uses and interpretations. To deal with it requires some understanding of the history of photography and the birth of the phrase and the concept. In history, documentary practises have had and they still have many names. Such phrases as documentary photography, social documentary, photojournalism, and many more, have been used to describe more or less the same thing. We can substitute them with each other depending on the definition, context of production and distribution and the form of display. We could endlessly define and redefine different documentary practices, but let us use the term documentary photography in a broad sense, as a way to examine and document world and life. Which was mainly the purpose of early photography. Nowadays, most of the early history of photography is called documentary, though the era did not know such definition. Only after photography had developed an array of styles around the turn of the century, documentary photography was introduced as a distinct concept and practice.
Though early photographers were simply documenting the environment at large and social and political events, they lost their innocence at a very early stage. As photography brings its practitioners to various places, they can’t avoid seeing things many people never confront. With many photographers, there is and has been strong moralist thinking involved and they start seeing things in light of social justice and in terms of right and wrong. But, as Martha Rosler has noted in her essay In, Around, and Afterthoughts : “Documentary photography has been much more comfortable in the company of moralism than wedded to a rhetoric or program of revolutionary politics.” Can we accuse photographers of moralism in addition to their extremely naivety? Hasn’t there been at least a tendency of revolutionary politics in works of many photographers, among them Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine? Or did they actually work, just as most other photographers, within society without a real revolutionary agenda? In the name of fairness I think we must separate two things, the intentions of the photographer, and the ways the images are read and used in different contexts and different times in society. Here is the greatest danger of the prevailing documentary tradition, naivety and lack of understanding of modes of receiving and interpretation. The sad truth is that the good intentions of socially conscious photographers have been too often watered down and turned against themselves, to support the status quo. In history, there are cases though, when the power elite has given the images a greater revolutionary value than the photographer himself has intended in his modest thoughts. Remember August Sander and the faith of his photographs in Third Reich.
The Other Document
“What good's it doing me?”
The sublime and vague idea of ‘the right to know’ is used as an excuse to deprive a person of control over ones privacy. It is a part of the same problem which faces the media in general. The irresponsible news-media does not offer people tools to control their own lives. First it intrudes into lives by neglecting to give enough information, then it refuses to help people not to be exploited, and finally it exploits them in their defenselessness in order to offer cheap entertainment at the cost of their sufferings and to give the fortunate ones the satisfaction of others’ misfortunes. Simultaneously it trivializes the news and all socially important questions by disengaging from larger reasons and issues, and by falling back upon instant emotional reaction. Most of this happens on TV, but the printed media, and in some cases even the art world do their best to follow. These operations are not dictated by impartial distribution of information but by unilateral business needs.
So, what good could follow from a (photographic) document to the subject? In the worst case scenario, nothing. At it’s best some individual gets attention, and even help, but the deeper cause of the problems are left unsolved and the corporate entertainment gets cheap programming. Days of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine are far behind.
Still a still image
The failure and deception of documentary photography
An image always constitutes a series of interpretations and choices, it excludes and passes by, it stresses to the purpose. The whole notion of the veracity, ‘the truth’ of the photograph is deception from the very beginning. More importantly, the presumption of the humanist attitude, that since the failures and problems have been shown and are common knowledge, they can be, and implicitly will be corrected, has no validity. In the days of early social documentarists there still was some fruitful ground and ignorance for enlightened ideas and revelations of inhuman conditions of the least fortunate ones to erupt. Not any more. We lull ourselves into believing this presumption and are not able to see that actually we get used to and become dulled with a world of images. We become estranged.
And further, the notion of seeing people fundamentally unequal has been planted and accepted by the political right. Such a comprehension surpasses the liberal social concept of fairness as it appeals to selfishness and self-preservation. A human tendency of self-deception and social climbing contribute to the situation. Aspiration of advancement allows people to place themselves socially higher than they are in reality. Especially classes in transition identify themselves with higher social classes. This particularly appeals to lower middle-class and middle-class in general. What follows is that these people tend to behave politically against their own good. The combined consequences of that and common conservative agenda and fear of the change of middle-class contributes to the denial of content in photography in general, and to the degrading status of a critical approach of photography in social issues in particular.
In the theory of photography the credibility of the photograph has been increasingly questioned as well. The current theoretical environment has stripped photography of its power to unambiguously signify and deliver specific, unchangeable messages. Photography today is increasingly understood as a two-way process of signification. Photographs are signs and they constitute of signs. These signs as any signs do not have specific meanings but are reconstructed in viewers minds to give meanings to and what messages one can read from a photograph. How a person reads a photograph is up to the persons cultural background and heritage and understanding of language and sign in a historical context. However, since most consumers are not aware of these operations of interpretation and ‘reading’ processes, photographs still posses enormous powers, particularly as persuasive evidences. The Photograph also has great possibilities to be misread, since it operates in such subtle ways. A person receives persuasive information without noticing it. Here are the challenges of contemporary photography, documentary or not: to restore the critical credibility and to reveal the hidden mechanisms of signification to the ‘ordinary’ viewer, the mass-consumer of images. The knowledge of interpretation and reading and careful consideration of modes and methods of production should be the main projects of documentary photography today.
The Documentarist and deception
Let us take an example:
In the context of the art world, the already conventional argument against representing social problems is that artworks are art, not sociological studies. In Salgados case the images are outspokenly claimed to be sociological studies but are reduced into estheticizing representations which only strengthen the status quo. That is why it has been possible to displaye them in mainstream publications, such as The New York Times Magazine, where Salgados photographs of the efforts to extinguish the oil-fires in Kuwait was part of the much needed and well engineered public relations campaign the political and economical powers needed to direct public attention away from the real reasons and consequences of the Gulf war in the early 1990s. Here we have a photographer who inspite of his good intentions has been employed by the power elite. Remember FSA during the WWII.
Salgados images are another attempt to find if not a previously unused point of view, at least new reasoning to what he is doing, which again romanticizes and distances the subject and loses the context and connection to reasons and consequences. Endlessly, again and again, credibility is given to good intentions and potential influence of photojournalism remains unchallenged.
Another but different example of conservative use of documentary photography is Tina Barney’s work. One could say that she has brought something new to her medium. Not only her staged documentary method, but she as one of the few artists depicting lives of upper classes has reached some refreshing results. The fascination of such work is partly based on the fact that the privileged have been mostly absent from public imagery. The traditional wealthy class hasn’t had much of it represented in photographic mapping of the world. Barney’s images are thus extraordinarily rare. She is able to show her subject without glamour and very commonplace because she comes from the very circle her work is about. She is familiar with her subject, which is most crucial in documentary practice, and so her work is uncolonizing towards it, unlike major part of the history of (documentary) photography. What is interesing here is why are we all of a sudden allowed to see this extremely privatized life. It is interesting that in todays world the group that accuires its own voice within photography isn’t one of those previously colonized and excluded from documentary practise, but the privileged, the colonizers. Tina Barney is not the only photographer who has recently been able to show the privacy of the privileged but she is a great example. Her work is extremely conservative in its values but simultaneously and unconsciously most revealing. Perhaps one reason that the privileged classes have come more out of their closet is their alienation from reality and a sense of isolation. Or, it simply is a strategy of the Right to engage documentary practises into its own use?
Do we need documentary photography?
Documentary photography has used its means, as Robert Frank noted, having “used up the single, beautiful image”. We are at a watershed largely because of the natural exhaustion of the form and belief in the truth of photography combined with digital image processing and other ways of depriving documentary photography of it’s power. All this does not leave much room for traditional documentary photography. Especially it’s black and white (single image) form has reached it’s saturation point both esthetically and socially. But still documentary photography is not useless. What to expect from it in everyday use? Do we still project our need for truth and evidence on a press photograph? What about the reassurance of the existence of the familiar and stabile world and need for uncomplicated and unquestioning information, can we load our expectations on documentary photographs?
Just as we should not forget that rest of the world does not live in computerized media societies and that romanticizing the manual labor is only one more form of colonizing the already colonized, we should look around us and give different cultural practices, others than our dominant ones, a chance before we end documentary photography (or any other form of communication for that matter). Though the traditional, naive documentary has come to the end of its way, some forms of culturally independent and subjective documentary photography have relevance, presupposed that any kind of documentary practice has validity in postmodern-western-eurocentric-industrialized world. The question is, how to create usable practises for documentary photography in our current time? New ways of operation have to be constructed.
Could there be a way to make ‘essential documentary’ and still retain visible the fact that any photograph, any document is interpretation? A photograph can be more an interpretation of the photographers mind than of the subject, or it can be an interpretation of the collaboration where the role of the interpreter is made visible. Transparency of the intentions as much as the results in terms of the impact of the author are crucial to the credibility and honesty of a ‘documentary image’ (I use the phrase documentary image to make a distinction between the traditional and new concept of documentary photography). Naturally we will be confronted with questions, old and new ones, asked by ourselves and the viewers. If we discuss the method of involvement of the subject, we face problems. A useful example in terms of giving the subject a voice, in letting him/her to co-create the image, is found in Andres Serrano’s early ‘Nomads’ series, in which the artist quite obviously failed in his efforts to ‘give dignity’ to his homeless models. In terms of Serrano’s are facing the whole problem of ‘giving’ and being a mediator. At the end, at least in my interpretation, his work turned against itself and appeared distant and conservative. He dictated the whole situation, from the place of the photo sessions and background to lighting, giving the models only a freedom to choose their facial expression. Where, in this case, and in many others, are the limits of interference? How can we decide the degree of involvement? Instead of giving his ‘Nomads’ a chance to be presented as they see themselves in extremely restricted circumstances, he should have collaborated more, and he should also have tried to let them show how they live and why. By simply naming the homeless subjects as ‘Nomads’ he both suggested that they have chosen the way they live and released the society from all responsibilities.
One is the family documentation (preservation of private memories in family snapshots and in increasingly amount the video) which is perhaps the widest spread documentary practice. It has actually gained more and more attention in the art world where some artists have employed these family preserves (own or borrowed) in various ways. It would be interesting to see that strategy to be employed also in the mainstream press (and not only tabloids and the ‘yellow press’). Of course use of such images is ‘risky’, since the idea of serious journalism and correct ways of representation in press are quite different and such a strategy could deteriorate the authority of the press.
What about constructed documentary images? If we have the attributes that certain situation consists of, carefully arranged and skillfully interpreted, does that count as much a document as a more traditional kind of interpretation? Especially if we try to create advanced document on ideas or contradictions between reality and our expectations or other kind of conflicts between mind and matter.
Whatever we end up doing, what is important is to critically interrogate the modes and methods of current and previous documentary practises. One should examine the practises not only in documentary photography but also in other styles from esthetic landscapes to advertising. It is not a question of what to photograph but how and on what and whose terms. A photographer has to be able to show the context and the complexity of the subject and openly express his/her position.
We find ourselves in a situation where every move and question makes moving more and more difficult. But isn’t that what should happen? That we as viewers and producers are aware of the complex concepts of reality and truth and of difficulties in creating valid documentary. We need speculation and new approaches to be able to refine the concept of documentary photography.
Perhaps we should not be after the truth, but effective pictures.
Kari Soinio, New York 1991
Observations, Essays on documentary photography . Edited by David Featherstone. (The Friends of Photography 1984) From Anne Wilkes Tucker's essay Photographic facts , originally: Nat Hery, Dorothea Lange in Perspective (Infinity April 1963), p.10.
Arthur Rothstein, Documentary photography , (Focal Press 1986)
Martha Rosler, In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) , in The Contest of Meaning (The MIT Press 1989) p. 72.
Florence Thompson, the subject of famous photograph Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 by Dorothea Lange, as quoted by The Associated Press. Martha Rosler In, Around, and Afterthoughts, in The Contest of Meaning (The MIT Press 1989) p. 315.
Observations , Estelle Jussim on Propaganda and persuasion, p. 103. A motto from Jacques Ellul: “In reality, to distinguish exactly between propaganda and information is impossible.” E Jussim writes about persuasion: “...the literature of photography contains far more about the chronological history of “documentary” than about how documentary photography succeeds in persuading, how the photographs manage to influence public opinion... ...processes of persuasion clearly involve not only the psychology of individuals and the social psychology of groups, but the mass psychology of entire cultures and societies. It is the study of the audience and the context of its response that has been most neglected.”
Rosler, In, Around, and Afterthoughts.
A description of the work in progress can be found from from the cover sleeve of Mr. Salgados book, The Uncertain Race.
Friends and Relations, photographs by Tina Barney Photographers at Work, A Smithsonian series (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London 1991) “The way I feel about things, and therefore photograph them, comes from the way I was brought up, how I've lived, how I've learned to appreciate, and how I worry about the fact that this extraordinary way of life might end, or change.”
Observations . William S. Johnson, Public Statements / Private views . There is a quotation from Frank: “[In the early 1950s] I always tried to come up with one picture that really said it all, that was a masterpiece. But I had used up the single, beautiful image. By the time I applied for a Guggenheim, I decided that that wasn't it either: it had to last longer, be a more sustained form of visual [expression]. ... There needed to be more pictures that would sustain an idea or a vision or something.” Frank had already noticed the exhaustion of a single image as such as it was then and had been for long. Though he still used the traditional documentary form and ideas when making his book “The Americans”, he soon after abandoned all that and started to explore different kinds of strategies and ended up using sequences in various ways (as a diary, for example) and film. He really was among the first ones to realize the situation and refused to lean on the romantic ideas of past.
“In a sentence quoted as frequently as its sense has been ignored, Benjamin commented (in relation to a photograph of the Krupp armaments factory) that ‘less than ever before does a reproduction of reality tell us anything about that reality and therefore something has to be constructed, something artificial, something set up.'” Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Reconstructing Documentary , in Photography at the Dock (Media & Society, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) pp. 188. More about the constructed images by W Benjamin as opposed to Modernist attitudes articulated by Lewis Mumford and Siegfried Kracauer, ibid. pp.188-189.