Project 4 The gallery wall – documentary as art

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?

Looking at Paul Seawright’s “Sectarian Murders” (1), within the photographs alone, I found more ambiguity, too much to consider them as your usual documentary images. Yes, he has revisited sites where atrocities took place, but is the text that informs you of this and the text is where the link lies to the “documentary” in the images.

If I cover the text and leave myself only the title, it gives me some indication as to the message or meaning, but not who was involved or the location in the world. The message is left very vague. Clearly, context is the key here, if I knew nothing of the background to these photographs, they wouldn’t mean an awful lot to me and I would be disinterested rather quickly.

But viewed as a whole, these images visit a place with meaning but leave the images ambiguous, at times, a little surreal with interesting angles and point of view. The image isn’t as obvious as a the standard documentary photo (that appears in a magazine or newspaper) would be, but does this necessarily and automatically make it art? Would it not be art if the photo were taken in a way that portrayed a clearer and more direct message?

Core of the Argument

At the core of his argument (2), Seawright makes the distinction between art and documentary. He says, documentary must give up it’s meaning quickly (due to being viewed in a short amount of time), “if it’s too explicit, it becomes journalistic” “if it’s too ambiguous, it becomes meaningless” He describes “good art” as having the ability to give up its meaning, but slowly, therefore allowing people to be drawn in.

He believes his aim is to lie in this space between being documentary and artistic and it’s important to create the space to allow the viewer to make their own interpretation. Its meaning lies with the person viewing the art.

I do agree with the fact that it is important to allow for interpretation, art does not shout it’s meaning directly in the face of the viewer, but even when a photograph appears to be more “direct”, there can still be many depths a viewer can visit within a photograph to allow them to decipher their own meaning from it.

Challenging the boundary

I thought about where a boundary would lie between the two types of photography and I cannot imagine there being a solid line between them. For me, it is more fluid and will always lie within the person viewing the images.

Of course, there are many that disagree with this and the boundary is a lot more solid between the artist and the documentarian, the values and ethics of the two are worlds apart and their motives differ vastly. The consideration of what lies behind the picture in the mind of the photographer is where the distinction is made. There is also the uncomfortable feeling of viewing such shocking images on the walls of a gallery, it feels “wrong” to call it art.

If we look at how this work challenges the boundary, I guess I would say that Seawright has added the detail within the text, he has clear intent by doing so. He is covering locations that are now seemingly quite ordinary but these are the sites of terrible crimes. What is the message? From the documentarian side, perhaps I would surmise that life goes on? Things change? People forget? The fact that terrible things can happen right on your doorstep in the most ordinary of areas? From the other side (if there has to be a clear distinction between documentary and art) then I would read the message from the context within the actual picture more, the angles draw my eye in, there are interesting colours and lighting in certain photographs, there is a sense of calm, verging on abandonment and quiet. For me, personally, I wouldn’t take the stance immediately of calling these photographs art.

But why does there have to be such a clear distinction (or boundary) between the two? If I paint you a picture of shocking atrocities occurring, then it would be automatically considered a form of art (or more likely documentary art). If I take a photograph with a camera, then this is more likely to be a point that is argued about. This is obviously due to the fact that the camera has the ability to capture the realities of life, exactly as it is, whereas, my paintbrush doesn’t. So does that mean that you have to make a photograph somewhat surreal and seemingly less realistic for it to be ok to call it art? Do I have to have my “art” brain in motion when take the photograph? Should it not make you feel morally uncomfortable?

I looked at the work of Sebastião Salgado (3) with his black and white cinematic photographs of mass migrations. The images are stunning, beautiful and what I would consider, very artistic. However, these are real people suffering and struggling, their humanity is exposed and laid out for all to see. Salgado’s work has been, at times, heavily criticised because it’s dared to call itself art. But, perhaps it’s his ability to make a real-life scene appear like a movie still that allows it to sit under the artistic tree and remain there. It almost looks so real that it has become unrealistic.

Sebastião Salgado
Sebastião Salgado

Changing its meaning

Does calling it art then change the meaning? Well, that depends on what, you, the viewer thinks. For some, it might, others will maintain their personal opinion, regardless of what you want to call it. It’s important to remember that there isn’t an exact checklist where a photograph must tick all the boxes and then be placed into a certain category.

Simply calling something art doesn’t necessarily make it so. For me, I would say that it makes no difference at all. I will appreciate a photograph for many different reasons and my first consideration is never whether it is a piece of “art” or not.

I believe that this debate originates from the beginning of photography, when it was a difficult thing to pass as an artist at all when behind a camera. The argument has just evolved into whether certain types of photographs are art or not. My stance on this would be that all photography is a form of art with many differing approaches, it may not appeal to everyone and I’m sure that there are many who disagree, but this doesn’t make it less so, in my eyes. Whether you consider yourself a fine photographic artist or a documentarian, you are communicating via an external means, it is creative, you are creating something (whatever your motive) and this is exactly was art is all about. Whether it’s considered “good” art, is completely different and in the end, very subjective.


  1. Seawright P. Secretarian Murders
  2. Seawright P.
  3. Salgado, S. Migrations 2002