Research Point: photojournalism


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?

If we measure by results, then we should accept that Lewis Hine did a good thing by helping to accomplish changes to labour laws which prevented exploitation of children. I don’t personally see exploitation or patronisation by Hine, but even if a plainly more acute eye like Rosler’s does see it, I think that it’s too easy to be an armchair critic and forget about the motivation of Hine and the outcome. As far as we know, he felt that it wasn’t right that children were being treated in this way. He felt it necessary to publicise the situation of mill workers, newspaper sellers, miners and others and his tool was photography.

This desire to improve the situation should be contrasted with the opening part of Rosler’s essay which is about what she plainly saw as predatory photographers exploiting the down-and-outs of The Bowery district in New York. Even though Rosler’s view is very acidic and critical, there is a relevant point about when do we step over the line as photographers? When do we exploit our subjects?

I believe that motivation must be the differentiating factor. If our motive is to help and generally improve the situation, then we’re on safe ground. If our motivation is otherwise – say, for personal gain – then we’re on a slippery slope and it’s this situation that Rosler is so passionate about.

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: when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/#1 [accessed 24/02/14]

It’s certainly not clear that images of war provoke change. Richard Pyle in his blog for the New York Times states this when talking about the Vietnam war:

“But for all their dramatic effect, and despite some who insist otherwise, none of the photos had enough impact to end, or even shorten, a war that went on for three more years after Nick Ut’s shutter clicked.” (Richard Pyle, 2012)

He should know: he was Associated Press’s bureau chief in Saigon at the time. Vietnam was different: for previous wars, there was heavy censorship of the press due to military control of communications and a much more compliant media at the time. Pyle puts it this way: “… some United States officials privately resented the press and discussed ways to impose censorship, ultimately conceding that it was impossible without World War II-type control of communications and a compliant media.”

I agree with Sontag’s view that horrific images of war numb our response. We turn away, we don’t want to know the truth, especially if it’s happening far away and to “foreigners”. But is this the fault of photography or is it human nature? Perhaps it’s a feeling of helplessness – after all, what can we do as individuals in the face of a mess like Syria?

On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves the contrary: what if we didn’t have these images? Would we prefer to be ignorant of what is being done in our name? Probably not. The challenge is on us, as individuals, not to ignore and to question.

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

Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay Inside/Out (as summarised in La Grange 2005) points out that a strict insider/outsider view of documentary photography hides considerable complexity. “We see truth as being on the inside, yet define objectivity as being on the outside”. She questions whether it is possible for us to tell the difference between an insider’s photograph and an outsider’s and how would we see that difference? She concludes that “photography  can only show the outside and cannot make visible the subjective and internal truth of the subject”. In other words, the subject shows only what they want to show and we can go no further.

My personal opinion is that one can be an insider or an outsider. Obviously we have brilliant insider photography such as Larry Clark’s Tulsa series where he was very much in the middle of the action and part of the tribe. Another example would be Nan Goldin’s A Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The plus side is that an insider knows intimately what is happening and why. The risk is that the insider is too involved and may be inclined to paint a more rosy picture than the real situation.

An outsider can potentially bring a greater degree of detachment and objectivity which is necessary in a documentary project. The challenge for the outsider is to become accepted enough to be trusted and have the access necessary, without tipping over the edge and losing the necessary detachment.


Clark, Larry (2000) Tulsa. (2nd ed) Grove Press

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Pyle, Richard (2012) Vietnam War Photos that Made a Difference At: (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

Ritchin, Fred (2014) Syrian Torture Archive: When Photographs of Atrocities Don’t Shock. At: (Accessed 20 Nov 2016)



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