My pocket Oxford English Dictionary informs me that the origin of the word “Document’ is the Latin documentum – ‘lesson’ and documentary is (1) consisting of documents and other material and (2) using film, photographs and sound recordings of real events to provide a factual report. This misses out ‘writing’.
Lewis Bush, asked the question “What is Documentary Photography?” here . Having pointed out that all photographs necessarily document something he states “the worth of that document is an entirely different question”. This is what we’re concerned with I think – what is the worth of something put forward as fact?
A fact is something that is known to be true. Well, truth is a slippery creature conforming itself to whatever interpretation is given to ‘facts’. I could say that nothing is true unless I’ve seen, experienced, heard it for myself.
There was a demonstration by the English defence League outside Liverpool Station in London
I was there, I saw and photographed it from a distance! However, I wasn’t standing too close – maybe it was part of a film. Best not to venture into the philosophy of truth; phenomenology etc!
We start from early photography and “ …. the implicit confidence in the objective truth of the camera’s vision” in the context of the mid C19th with its passion for documentation and taxonomies, inventories and physiologies. (A. Solomon-Godeau, p. 155). Solomon-Godeau points out that this belief, “ …. In the definitive truth of the photograph is a curious phenomenon. …….and its obvious (to us) deficiencies were discussed almost exclusively in the context of the critical debate regarding photography versus painting.” It was there from the beginning then. The need to believe that a photograph is true against a belief that it isn’t.
Having begun with definitions, I’m now going to move on to giving myself a quick snapshot of reading/learning I’ve done on the topic since beginning with the OCA. Much of this has been brought into focus again by a Symposium I went to on Saturday 8th November on Fiction and Photography : Imagining Reality. I’ll be writing more on that in another post – hence the brevity of this one.
Project One – Eyewitnesses; Documentary and Social Reform
There’s so much here, with daily, almost hourly accounts from ‘eyewitnesses’. There’s the use of social media and smart phones during the Obama election campaign to spread the word, including professional photographers using iphones so as to appear more spontaneous. I know also of a Facebook campaign Da Begad ? ده بجد to expose social media and lies . More information here . What do I believe? Difficult to express as that varies according to the image and I tend to be cynical of what I’m told to believe.
Here’s a screenshot of an image accompanying an article on Yahoo news today concerning a Police probe of the South African President
more information here . One could assume that this photograph is of the President answering questions about this but there’s no indication of place or date. Obviously there are lots of photographs of President Zuma but why was this particular one chosen in the first place. It has a certain angle to it that makes President Zuma look as if he is beginning to topple over. And so it ‘fits’ the story of the police probe. Is this important? Is it going to add to the seriousness of the story, incline someone to a stronger belief in it? From another point of view, the US Government chose not to publish photographs of the death of Osama bin Laden so as not to incite further violence. With no photograph there are some people who are bound to say that her is still alive, or, if there was a photograph they might say that wasn’t him and the image has been manipulated/photoshopped. Officials did release videos of bin Laden that were recovered in the raid. The latter shows he existed – although I’ve read articles stating that he never did.
I recently read about “The Angel of Kobane” . Who is she; where does she come from; does she exist.? Think of the back-story. A young, attractive Kurdish fighter; in uniform, no veil; blonde hair – a symbol of resistance against Islamic State. Where does the photograph come from? The Swedish journalist, Carl Drott, provides us with a different story. The BBC story reads like Chinese Whispers and that particular photograph obviously enhances the story but does it prove that it’s true.
Project Two – Photojournalism
I wrote about Martha Rosler’s 1981 essy In, Around and Afterthoughts here . I was very interested in Rosler’s views on the need for a new form of such Documentary that I think extends to Photojournalism also and I’ll come back to that later.
Do I think that socially driven photographs can be exploitative or patronising. Yes – I think they could be and I came across this on the web as an example. In term of manipulation of photography to represent ‘truth’ there are so many examples. Can photography change things – I think it can. Tom Hunter’s work is an example of this. I’ll note other as they come to mind. John Mraz, for one, has written about this in relation to digital photography and photojournalism here . Mraz’s conlusion states,
In sum, digitalization seems to be as unavoidable as globalization. However, as important as acknowledging the victory of computer over chemical photography is the examination of its implications. Does digitalization necessarily include alteration? Will the documentary esthetic of discovery, of research, of receptiveness to chance disappear with the chemical process? I would argue that — despite the many instances of direction, alteration, or manipulation in chemical photography — the medium invented in 1839 made available to the world a new form of communication and a new way of preserving the traces of the past: technical images. This medium led to the development of a new esthetic, which we have come to call “documentary,” that is somehow bound up with the real world in a way different from that of other forms of representation. If we make the mistake of throwing this baby out with the bathwater I fear we will all be the poorer for it.
I identify with Sontag’s views on “Compassion Fatigue” as I’ve felt it myself. With so much tragedy and violence happening in the world what can I do about it? It seems that no matter what is done it still continues. And my view of human nature as such is that it will still continue because human beings are innately aggressive and it’s social conditioning in all its forms that exerts a leavening influence – well, depending on the type.
I read an interesting article a while ago on the Duckrabbit blog here offering further context – “Victims turned into works of Art” – the recent prize winning image of father carrying his dead child comes to mind. The question quoted by Magda Mis “Can we understand war without looking at blood? And without seeing blood, would we know what war looks like?”
This year artists gathered together in Pakistan Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province “ to unveil a gigantic portrait of a local child whose parents and siblings were allegedly killed by missiles fired from a U.S. drone.” Their aim was to dehumanize war and they wanted those distant drone operators to see what they were aiming at and how they were not playing games with their computers. Here is their website . There has been a move towards ‘late’ or ‘aftermath’ photography portraying war landscapes in different ways – Richard Mosse , winner of this year’s Deutsche Borse Prize with Enclave. Luc Delahaye moving away from photojournalism towards Fine Art and staging vast landscapes with figures in what The Guardian terms “an uncomfortable art” and representations of the effects of war through more conceptual methods as in the work of Alfredo Jaar with The Eyes of Gutete Emerita . I remember as well how moved I felt to see the work of Broomberg and Chanarin in War Primer 2 .
Not so much a conclusion perhaps but rather a ‘work in progress’, gathering my thoughts together. Where does my reading so far leave me with these issues of evidence truth, integrity, representation and manipulation? I know of my own ambivalent thinking – on the one hand feeling cynical about images that purport to tell the ‘truth’ and, on the other hand, wanting to be truthful in my own work whilst knowing that the viewer will make their own ‘truth’ of it. I think I can only start from the basis of my intention to be honest and to acknowledge when I might be stretching the truth or manipulating it in other ways, bearing in mind that I’m very interested in the idea of fiction in photography and how it can portray universal truths whilst telling stories.
10th November 2014
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) Photography at the Dock, University of Minnesota Press
Web [accessed 10.11.2014]