The photograph as document – Project 4: Documentary as art – Research point

Research point

Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders.

• How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: [accessed 24/02/14]

• What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?

• If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

 Initial thoughts

The photographs in this series♣ are taken 12-15 years after the events that they are related to. David Campany called this “Late Photography¹”, but I’m not sure that the term applies here, as there’s no evidence of the event that occurred in the photographs. There’s only the landscape/place where the event happened, with accompanying text to link the two. Without the text to anchor the meaning, we would simply have slightly ominous pictures of places.

Each image is highly aesthetic. The composition has been well designed , even managed, through the use of colour, lighting, activity, point/angle of view and processing  in order to communicate a meaning which is not directly obvious.

Each image is captivating and it draws the viewer in, inviting them to read the image in detail. The images create a slight sense of documentary, in so far as they stir emotion and tell the stories from an almost historical point of view, backed up by the “facts” from newspapers/archives. Given the manner in which these murders have been documented, I feel  more disturbed than if I were looking at the images of the bodies themselves. I think that this is because the images compel us to relate these “normal” places, and the “everyday” to the horrific acts of violence which we can only imagine, but are told as a matter of fact that they occurred.

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

I don’t think it does. I think that it has overstepped the boundary by so far, that there is nothing to challenge. The work may have some documentary qualities, but for me, it sits firmly in the realm of Art. Regardless of the context that we view this work in, whether it be a gallery or a newspaper, the aesthetic qualities and the challenge to find meaning for ourselves, make these images unsuitable as documentary images. A documentary image must give up its meaning quickly and denote the event/subject in a clear and concise manner, which Seawright alludes to in his interview². In the interview, Seawright discusses a “fine balance” which needs to be struck between work becoming too journalistic on the one hand, and too ambiguous on the other. I think that a better example of where his work challenges this boundary is his series, Hidden³. In this series, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, we see a much better example of Late Photography, with evidence of the events that have taken place, or the potential for catastrophic events to happen in the future. Without a need for accompanying text, the images give up some of thier meaning quickly, whilst there is more to be found for those that are interested in reading further into each image. The aesthetic qualities are there, but they are more subtle, and I feel that the images would be equally at home in the gallery, or a broadsheet.

What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?

I think that the core of his argument is the “fine balance” referred to above. Seawright confesses that he is often criticised because his work is not explicit enough (as is often expected of documentary) or is too ambiguous. He goes on to say “An image needs to be visually engaging and give up its meaning slowly. Good art does that”. Seawright considers himself an artist, not a photojournalist, which will inevitably have an impact on the type of images he produces, and how they are received.  It is the fact that his images do not give up their meaning too quickly that make them art. In that respect, yes, I do agree with him. I also agree with Stephen Bull’s definition of the difference between documentary and art, in that documentary images are based on objective reality, and art is the creation of an artists subjective sensibility♠. Sectarian Murders is most definitely the later.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

In my opinion no, the meaning does not change, but more meaning may be added. By my own definitions, a documentary photograph must denote its meaning clearly and concisely, giving up its meaning quickly. This leaves little room for misinterpretation by the viewer. But we cannot rule out the viewers interpretation of the discourse, based on their own culture and identity. By changing the context (say from newspaper to gallery), we are inviting the viewer to read more deeply into the image. The images displayed alongside this one, the size of it/them, and any accompanying text/material will all add to the meaning in the form of connotation, but the denotation remains. My initial response to this question was “who does the defining”? We may all have our own ideas of what art is. What is art to one, may be documentary to another and vice versa.








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