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 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?
- Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses? Read your answer again when you’ve read the next section on aftermath photography and note whether your view has changed. See also: http://lightbox.time.com/2014/01/28/ when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/#1 [accessed 24/02/14]
- Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?
After reading Martha Rosler’s essay (1) I considered the points she made about the Bowery (which no longer exists now as it did in the 80’s) and how she called this type of work “Victim Photography” which she felt served to highlight the plight of the poor, but really only in the sense which allowed them to be seen by the many. The many, Of whom wouldn’t never think to venture to such places in real life, and regard these photographs with a sort of voyeuristic fascination and something to be experienced, similar to the way one sees a circus. She explained that documentary photography (as was in the 80’s) had taken on a type of “pugnacious self interest” (which is probably even more true now than in the 80’s with the rise of social media and the digital age).
When looking back at the work of Lewis Hine, Rosler explained that there was a sense of “awakening the self interest of the privileged” and making them feel a sort of sympathy (for the poor/disadvantaged), relief (for themselves) and fear (for a possible future) at the same time. She described his work as “social work Propagandizing” and “sensationalism“.
She compared documentary photography to horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming the threat into some sort of fantasy, one in which enables the viewer to see it, react, and then leave it behind.
Do I agree with her? In some ways, yes I do. Whilst I do not feel knowledgable enough to be in a position to say that I can tell you what exact motives lie behind the work of photographers like Lewis Hine. I can certainly appreciate the more cynical viewpoints of the essay. Rosler states that photography “took a turn from being an ExposE, outrage and compassion for the subjects to a form of voyeurism, tourism and trophy hunting” and I can see her point with this.
When someone photographs a subject that doesn’t directly effect them (something that they, themselves, have not experienced first hand or lived through) then how can they be educated enough to highlight the plights and true horrors of these subjects? It could be considered a similar act to the “turkey-necking” that occurs around an automobile accident. You can’t help but look and feel a sense of relief for not being the victim, and have sympathy too. At the same time, you simply cannot feel exactly the way the victim does, just because you laid witness to the aftermath. One can only become wise through having actually lived the experience. We are all only surmising until that point.
When a photographer creates a photograph (staged or candid), it has always had an element of planning, of motive, of subjectivity, behind it. Unless you are attempting to highlight your own plights and misfortunes, you can see how easily it is to judge someone from the same stance as Rosler’s, especially by those who are photographed (think about how Florence Thompson felt after “Migrant Mother”).
Therefore, it can be difficult to consider that the motives of the somewhat “ignorant” photographer are anything other than self-interested, since you are left to wonder about their reasons for the choice of a particular subject matter. Rosler asks “which political battles have been won by someone fighting for someone else” I agree with this. The strongest argument comes directly from the mouths of victims and they have the right to portray themselves, the way they wish without the interference of the photographers own wish on the outcome.
So, unless the photographer is also the victim, the true subjectivity of an image can feel slightly misplaced and is easily misconstrued.
Does this all matter however, if the outcome is the same? In a way, no. If there is a positive benefit for victims, then I am sure that someone, along the way, will be appreciative. But it must be considered at what cost this benefit is attached to. The “Migrant Mother” for instance, felt like she was not directly beneficial, perhaps even exploited and negatively effected throughout her life. But on the other hand, I’m sure there were many, who perhaps, did benefit from the work of Dorothea Lange, so is it right overall?
That argument is one similar to the “Trolley Problem” (Sacrifice one to save many) and is a difficult one to answer. However, I don’t think that it can be disputed, that photography, does indeed have some clout in changing situations. Especially when the photographer is telling the story not only from behind a lens, but through their own experience.
Despite an understanding of the cynicism which Rosler adheres to. I do have a strong belief that human beings are not always completely self-serving. We are more than capable of empathy and compassion and if a photograph (whatever the intention of the photographer) stirs this within us and compels us to assist our fellow man, then this certainly, cannot be considered a negative.
Take, for instance, the impact of Children in Need and the donations that pour in from people wanting to help (whether this be to appease the guilt they feel for their elevated position or from genuine empathy – or a bit of both), the donations received help an enormous amount of people. This is achieved with the help of photography, videography and testimony, so photography certainly plays it’s part highlighting the plight of others and bringing it to public attention. Many of these situations would never be realised without the use of photography and many of the people affected simply don’t have the means to help themselves or fight their own battles alone.
Ultimately, I believe that the truth for me lies somewhere a little further in the opposite direction from Rosler’s view. There are genuine, helpful people out there and there are also people who are quite the opposite. Therefore, we cannot lump all documentary photographers into the same box.
Another opinion is that of Susan Sontag. In her article (2), she questions reality and how an image seems to have the ability to “replace it, define it, or precede it“. The photograph replaces the experience itself. I noted that her views have changed somewhat over the years, on how the over-saturation of images towards society has the ability to numb us to such atrocities that happen in a war far away. She now appears to blame television.
There is no doubt that we are very much in the throws of a highly consumerist society. We have every piece of information we care to know about, right there, at our fingertips waiting to be discovered through various mediums. It is not only one source of “information giving” that we are drowning in.
However, as opposed to numbing us with information overload, I believe it has actually created many mental health problems among a society that has seemingly little to worry about (in comparison with the war-torn and less privileged areas of the world). The result of too much knowledge without the experience attached to it, I believe, has made many people mentally ill.
I think that Sontag’s views mirror my own if you are comparing an actual real life experience to one in which you view a real life experience of someone else by means of a moment in time photograph. You cannot conjugate the two, they are quite literally, worlds apart. This isn’t something which is strengthened or weakened by “over viewing” images or seeing them once a week for a limited amount of time. The realities of the two situations are completely different from each other. You cannot “experience” war when sitting on a cosy sofa in the warm safety of your own environment no matter how you are viewing the images. Sure, you can empathise, feel guilt, shame and sadness, even feel compelled to do something about it, but photography has it’s limitations with regard to how one reacts. And just how one reacts (whether you become numb or overcome with complete insanity from viewing) is ultimately up to the person and their make-up. We all have a way of dealing with things that keep us mentally sane (hopefully) and the cognitive dissonance that can be triggered by the experience of viewing something so vastly different to our own reality has to be satiated one way or another. We can choose to try and ignore it and go back to our safe exisitence or we can do something about it.
After viewing the article in Time Magazine (3) I would still stand by my original view. Images of this nature are still a shock to me and I cannot begin to imagine the terror and pain that these individuals went through.
However, I am still viewing these photographs through a type of smoke screen. I am not there, I do not know the circumstances (only what the media chooses to tell me) and I can only illicit a response based on this single picture, a moment in time. I am also a single individual, viewing a photograph of a place I will probably never visit. What reaction am I meant to have? Am I wrong for feeling guilt and then returning to my daily living? And if that is the case, do I even have the right to be viewing these photographs? What outcome is meant to be achieved?
Ultimately an awareness.
Journalists risking their lives to bring these atrocities to public attention is a way of highlighting the governments responses (or somewhat lack of) and I believe we should have this knowledge of what goes on in the world away from our own front doors. That, to me, is the most important point, regardless of motive. Gun crime is America is brought to the forefront time and time again and yet their government still do nothing about it (gun sales = profit). When war crimes occur and people are persecuted, many times, nothing much is done (unless there is something to be gained from taking a stand).
The public is enlightened (through photographs), they become outraged, and the government responds one way or another to appease the people’s anger. But what is achieved isn’t always that much unfortunately. These things still happen, everyday and probably more than we care to realise. I am cynical enough to believe that the government will always have its own agenda, regardless of photographic evidence. They aren’t “numb” to it as this article suggests, it’s just more beneficial for them to look the other way sometimes. If anything, photographs like these highlight the atrocities of power, the reach that is has and how easily we could all fall victim to it. However, that isn’t something that is easily halted by the Average Joe, no matter how angry and upset he gets. But it’s still beneficial to be aware, to have an opinion and to try and make a change (if you are compelled to do so). It’s also important to realise that, whilst you are sitting in your comfy, safe home, there are many people in the world that aren’t afforded the same luxuries. Photographs like these, in my opinion should always be taken, be highlighted and always be viewed no matter how many there are or how many times you see them. If you carry any sense of compassion within you, viewing these photographs won’t make you numb, it will make you aware. And if you don’t care, then you never did, you were numb before. Viewing these images, however, might change you, eventually.
But what about photography’s limitations?
I recognise that both Rosler and Sontag seem quick to concentrate on the limitations of the medium of photography. Sontag described photography in that it “speaks in only one language and fades from view” and Rosler also critises its limitations to communicate with the viewer. But why do we continue to emphasis its limitations? We, as innate beings, who use various methods of communication with each other in order to be understood, cannot be angry at photography for only appealing to one of our senses. We can only see a photograph. We cannot smell it, touch it, hear it or taste it. In the same way that the written word can sometimes be misconstrued (think of the times a message you wrote to someone via text was taken the wrong way), photography has the same potential to deliver a blurry message to its viewer.
So yes, perhaps, photography does have its limitations, but it can still have a profound impact and even more so, when it is coupled with appeals to the other senses we posses. The fact, that things can be vague with photography is actually one of the things that attracts me the most. Photography is and always has been, ultimately up to the viewer to decipher.
I watched a video on youTube (4) in which 3 documentary photographers were interviewed all of whom had very different approaches to documentary and what it meant to them. They were Chris Verene, Michael Wolf and LaToya Ruby Frazier. Frazier and Verene, worked close to home, in the sense that the subjects mattered personally to them. Wolf’s work took on the more voyeuristic view and I have to say that I gained something quite different but in many ways quite the same, from each of their bodies of work. Firstly, I was fascinated and intrigued.
I could feel Frazier’s struggle with “The Notion of Family” but also admiration with the search to find herself through her work. She is a very driven woman who is passionate about her subjects because she lives and breaths it.
Verene’s work with his family and their stories was delightful to view but I felt at times, almost a little uncomfortable with the voyeurism. It were, as if we, the viewer, were imposing on the lives of these people (like I had stepped up to their window and glared through). However, there was a relief in the fact, that, because it was a photograph, it felt ok and permitted, much like the way in which Rosler describes Diane Arbus’ work.
Wolf’s work seemed to fit in with the way that described the current place of documentary and in which John Szarkowski had described photography in 1967 “What is held in common is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorizing.” “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it”. I felt a sense of fascination, but with the simple intrigue of a voyeur.
My differing feelings and opinions on each of these does not discredit and devalue any of them, it only proves that there isn’t only one way of approaching documentary and it can be used in any way that the photographer is compelled towards. Ultimately, to view another’s work and highlight everything that is wrong with it, I believe, shouldn’t be ones aim. As with all other forms of photography, communicating your own message is the key. Then what one does with that, as a viewer, is up to them and is completely out of your control.
- Rosler, M. In around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) 1981. http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf
- Sontag. S. Looking at War, The New Yorker. 2002. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war
- Syrian Torture Archive: When Photographs of Atrocities Don’t Shock, Ritchin, F. Time Magazine 2014. (https://time.com/3426427/syrian-torture-archive-when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/
- Aperture Foundation at The New School: Documentary Photography https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6nTXZKoggQ