The photograph as document – Project 2: Photojournalism – Research point

Research point

If you’re interested in the critical debates around photojournalism, try and make time to find out more about at least one of these critical positions [Charity – Martha Rosler, Compassion Fatigue – Susan Sontag, Inside/Out – Abigail Solomon-Godeau] during your work on Part One. Here are some questions to start you off:

  • Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?

For me, this is where photography “theory” becomes a little confusing. Where the term “critical viewpoint” is used in the course material, essays or books, what I actually see is “opinion”. Rosler’s take on the work of Lewis Hine is her opinion. I believe that it’s an opinion that will be shared by many other photographers or critics, so does it become a critical viewpoint when it is a shared opinion? By asking myself the question above, and debating these viewpoints, am I really just going through a critical process of forming my own opinion through research and debate? I think that Rosler has a point. Hine may well have been reinforcing the gap between rich and poor in his images, but that does not mean that he was not helping the situation. This is where context and the intended audience come into play. Hine’s approach of allowing his subjects to pose for the camera was a little radical in terms of documentary photography, and was not in line with other photographers notions of social documentary¹. I also find that his images have very aesthetic qualities, which do not do justice to the conditions of the workers whose plight he is trying to highlight. Unlike Paul Reas, who also posed manual workers in their environments, Hine does not allow them the dignity that Reas affords his subjects. There is no doubt that Hine was well-meaning, and had a social conscience, which leads me to believe that he was not being exploitive. There are definitely lots of examples out there where photographers do exploit their subjects, but again this comes down to context. If an image of a homeless person is used in a magazine for raising awareness, it is exploiting only the situation for the good and benefit of all in that situation. If however, the image ends up on a gallery wall being admired for its aesthetic qualities by the upper/middle classes, then both the situation and the individual have been exploited. Does that make it wrong? That’s a matter of opinion. It is my belief that photography alone cannot change a situation. It can educate and inform the decision makers who have the power to change situations, or can help to shape and form public opinion which is often the driving force behind political change.

Hmmm, this is a tough one because I’m a little biased. I have a lot of images from the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, many of which are quite horrific. My response to these images is numbed by the fact that I was there, and no image is quite as horrific as the actual event. There is no doubt that in this “age of the image”, with trillions of photo’s vying for our attention², we are swamped with photo’s of conflict. Despite so many of these horrific images being in existence, we are not subjected to them on a regular basis. I dare say that it is actually the frequency at which we are subjected to such images, rather than the number of images in existence that numbs our response. Surely this is true of the events and situations that the images depict? If you were surrounded by mutilated bodies every day, you would become used to it. Therefore if you see numerous images of the same thing every day, would you become immune to them? Probably not, because you are viewing the event/situation/horror in a completely different context. You could be sat in your living room, in your nice big house in the English countryside surrounded by your family, which changes the context of the image being viewed. This will have a huge effect on the images impact. Whenever I watch Comic Relief, curled up on the sofa in my dressing gown, I become numbed to the plight of starving children in Africa, because we are shown the same adverts and appeals over and over again all night. After a while it becomes “just another starving child in a country far far away”. 2 months later, I can see the same advert and be in pieces over it. I don’t think that images are necessary to provoke change nowadays, because film is the dominant media when it comes to war coverage. 24 hour news channels keep us inundated with film footage, whilst online news websites and apps stream footage over high-speed internet connections. The only real place left for images is magazines, newspapers and billboards. Although not necessary, that doesn’t mean that they can’t provoke change. Since WW2, we have seen a lot of change in conflict, with the advent of the Geneva Convention, prisoners are treated more humanely, which in part can be attributed to public opinion which has been formed by images. The Ottawa Treaty bans the use of land-mines and sub-munitions by countries that have signed up to it. Is this due to images of children missing limbs that have emerged over the past 40 years? The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Munitions (CCM), prohibts the use of Napalm on any target other than specific Military Installations. Again, is this thanks to images from Vietnam?

  • Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?

No, but it helps and hinders at the same time. Being an outsider promotes a more objective view which I see as critical to documentary photography if the images are to represent “truth”. Being an insider can invoke subjectivity, even on a subconscious level, which is great if the intention is to create a narrative. Being on the inside can bring objectivity into question, but can also provide opportunities (through more intimate knowledge) for more candid images that an outsider perhaps wouldn’t be privy to. Having the inside track also allows more of a more informed narrative, through the inclusion of text to anchor or relay meaning. To create a successful documentary project, I think it’s important to strike a balance between the voyeuristic and confessional (which are at either end of the spectrum),

References:

¹ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/the-radical-images-of-lew_b_5893064.html

² http://lightbox.time.com/2014/01/28/when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/#1