Fiction and Photography : Imagining Reality

This was a one day Symposium on 8th November organised by Media Space, Science Museum in collaboration with the University of Westminster and I attended with Penny and John. The format was traditional in the sense that the speakers presented a topic with a short time afterwards for discussion with Dave Bate and questions. I was somewhat concerned that a whole day sitting and listening might be too much for me but, in fact, it was all very inspiring. Not to mention that at lunchtime I also had the opportunity to spend some time exploring the Joan Fontcuberta Exhibition (post to be written).

Kate Bush, Head of Photography, Science Museum

Welcome speech, including the information that new works are going to be commissioned by the Media Space Gallery.

Dave Bate, Professor of Photography, University of Westminster

He put some context around fiction and photography, summarising its history which really goes back to the beginning, and the debates/disagreements regarding photography and ‘truth’ and criticisms of the use of ‘fiction’ either through manipulation of scene; image; use of light etc – with examples. Professor Bates drew our attention to the writings of Martha Rosler on this (link here ) and her work using photo-montage to contrast opposing realities such as depictions of domestic bliss v the Vietnam War in House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home and, brought up to date with a new series during 2004-2008 .

Reference was made to Walter Benjamin and his writing on storytelling and I’ve found this here  where Benjamin is referring to the decay in the art of oral storytelling:

In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing.   ………The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.

He was writing here after the end of WWI, at a time when the novel was replacing the oral tradition. A story is a story though. I know there is a difference between imagining a story in one’s head and listening to one but I think there is so much variety available now. So far as photography is concerned the continuing challenge is how to negotiate the dynamic between the values of truth; reality and fiction and “..use the photograph as a portal to another world” as mediated by the photographer as opposed to the writer.

Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Let’s Not and Say We Did: Fictional Journeys through Photography

Some wonderful examples of manipulation pre and post digital followed by a description of the way in which Space Exploration has been a subject of this, e.g. Stanley Kubrick used the technical expertise of two space engineers in his1968 film 2001 :A Space Odyssey to help him construct a convincing illusion. These engineers were also part of the team for the 1969 Apollo Space Mission. Conspiracy theorists used the fact of the film to accuse NASA of faking Neil Armstrong’s descent. This then inspired the film Capricorn I.

In the discussion afterwards Finemann re-stated the need and desire we have to believe in the truth of photography versus the knowledge that images are often faked. One of the questions afterwards was “Are there terms to judge a “successful” fictional project?”, citing ISIS and dissemination of their war machine. This led to Professor Bate’s query as to whether there are bases of judgment, rules of practice and/or conventions similar to advertising. He also pointed to the use of the term “construction” rather than manipulation, and directorial staging in how images are captured.

My thought was regarding my need to have my own ethics in terms of acknowledging whatever manipulation has been used not only in post-processing but in terms of how I have represented reality or fiction as I see it.

Lucy Soutter, Artist, critic and art historian
Fictive Documents, Fictional Lives

Do we collaborate with, or take advantage of, our subjects? How do we behave when “infiltrating” a group; immersing ourselves in it with the intention of using this for photography? Are we ‘overt’ or ‘covert’? This is an area I’ve always felt concerned about. In my working life I had to write reports on other people’s lives and motivations and, throughout, strove to represent them as objectively as possible. This is probably why I’ve felt hesitant about documentary photography which is from a more subjective viewpoint. It was Anna Fox’s view that documentary is telling a story about the truth that relaxed me.

If fiction’s role is to represent reality what problems occur when the lines blur? Soutter gave examples such as Walker Evans rearranging a kitchen and the novel Nadja (1928) by Andre Breton. Breton provides a first person narrative of his relationship with ‘Nadja’ (based on a real life relationship) which is supplemented by forty-four photographs – pictures of places and objects. I’m minded here of the more recent work of Sophie Calle who similarly mixes fact with fiction and photography and have recently written here about Lorna Simpson and Leonard & Dunye who have used ‘found’ photographs to create characters. Soutter also referred to the Sweet Flypaper of Life  by DeCarava & Hughes [1955] giving a different view of Harlem through photographs and dialogue.

Mention again made of Martha Rosler’s views on documentary and its clichés and how photographers now attempt to subvert these in many different ways by undermining the conditions in which images are made. Examples such as Broomberg & Chanarin Afterlife  [2009] and Alfredo Jaar’s The Eyes of Gutete Emerita  [1996]

Lucy Soutter also drew comparisons with novels and how multiple points of view can be used “to build layered picures of a situation” as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012). Through Soutter I have discovered Geraldine Brooks and her wonderful novel People of the Book (2008) based on the real life story of the Sarajevo Haggadah ( which is complex and fascinating in its own right). Walid Raad created The Atlas Group and the notebook of a fictional historian. There’s an interesting interview with him here . Going back to photography, Soutter stated that “fictive photography projects can extend the realist project to understand ourselves” – and this is an area of interest to me.

There followed a tripartite discussion between Lucy Soutter, Mia Fineman and Dave Bate. Soutter commented how some photojournalists move into “Art”, e.g. Luc Delahaye and, although truth is still the goal in photojournalism itself, there are Courses such as those run by the London College of Communication which explore all the different ways of representation.

There was some discussion on the photographer Sally Mann and the narrative element in her images of her children. I think this hearkened back to earlier in the day and the question as to whether artists collaborate or ‘use’ their subjects – well at least that was the chord for me. I can certainly agree that children do use their imagination and act out stories – sometimes like role-plays for future real-life scenarios – and they are encouraged to do this by their families and teachers. I don’t think that necessarily means that that creative acting-out justifies using it for photography. I don’t agree with Lucy Soutter either that it is the responsibility of the viewer to decide what they make of an image. The viewer certainly brings their own experience and creative imagination towards a work, but surely the artists themselves do have to take some responsibility for the work in the first place or are ethical values to be completely disregarded? I don’t intend to disregard mine.

Another point of view was offered (I forget by whom and don’t have a note of it), which related to the different descriptions heaped upon Sally Mann – bad mother etc. Given all these descriptions, could we read her photographs as if they are narratives by an author/photographer?

There was a different question regarding the role of the museum in representing truth which Mia Fineman related to Joan Fontcuberta’s Exhibition and acknowledged the role of the Curator in implementing a narrative. This wasn’t picked-up particularly but I think that’s an interesting point to pursue as I know I have often queried the role of the Curator in presenting a photographer’s work.

Cristina de Middel
When Fiction is Stranger Than Truth

Cristina moved from an early belief in the power of photography to change the world (that led her to Photojournalism), to no longer believing that you can change things with newspapers and she told us that all her work now is a reaction to this. This led her towards investigating photography’s “ambiguous relationship with truth” as in her series The Afronauts. which put her on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013.

Looking at her website  I would say that her style is eclectic whilst being underlined with a wry look at life and its absurdities, “We all breathe clichés. How to get inside them?” In terms of collaboration versus ‘taking advantage” of subjects’, Cristina told us about her project Life and Miracles of Paula P  which is a narrative concerning a real-life prostitute who Cristina got to know well. Whilst agreeing to be the subject, ‘Paula’ was very concerned as to her family finding out about her life and so Cristina turned her into an actress of herself. Each image is linked with short text in a matter of fact style which to me comes through as “This is how it is/was” without seeking sympathy for Paula’s predicament.

Her latest project was This is what Hatred did and she talks about this (and The Afronauts) in this video which has just been published

It looks a fascinating project – a fictional story that she made happen for real, and I was interested in her comment that this latest project is a self-portrait maybe of the way her mind works . Cristina also reminded me somehow of Joan Fontcuberta, not only in having also created projects concerning spam and space projects, but in the energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humour that can infuse her work.

Peter Kennard
Photomontage Artist

Kennard’s photomontage work dates back to the Vietnam War and he told us about its historical roots in the work of Hannah Höch and Dadaism, an artists’ protest group trying to show the breakdown of society and what technology does to people. Walter Benjamin is his main political theorist and I think that pessimistic approach towards humans in society comes through in Kennard’s work. This video illustrates his approach very well.


I missed the final session of the day which was a discussion chaired by Federica Chiocchetti on the Virus of Fiction. Federica is an independent curator – she co-curated Amore e Piombo Exhibition at Brighton Photo Biennial 2014 which I wrote about here. She is working on her PhD in photography and fictions at the University of Westminster and is founder of the platform  which is, “devoted to exploring the intriguing relationship between photography and fictions, images and words”. I think this will be a good resource for me.

The day was full of information and inspiration for me, giving me many ideas relating to photography, fiction and use of text that I am still processing.

29th November 2014



Brooks, G (2008) People of the Book, HarperCollins, London