Research Point: Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder

Brief

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

  • How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: http://vimeo.com/76940827 [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?

Response

Paul Seawright - Thursday 14th December 1972

Paul Seawright – Thursday 14th December 1972

In the video, Seawright explains the challenge of maintaining a balance between being too explicit and hence journalistic, and being too ambiguous and hence meaningless. For him, the holy grail (as is puts it), is “to make work that visually engages people, that draws them in and then that … gives its meaning up slowly”. He goes on to say that “once you know its context, you know where the photographs are made then each work is very resonant with all kinds of ideas”.

I think the key point is knowing the context. Without context, the works could be seen as somewhat quirky landscape photos. The context is what draws the viewer in and gives a rich layer of meaning to each image. For me personally, this was very much the case. The captions gave the  critical context for me to reflect on what happened, what it must have looked like, and also the senseless brutality to which we give the name “The Troubles”.

The core of Seawright’s argument is that to successfully create work in this in-between space between documentary and art, it is essential to make space for the viewer’s own interpretation, otherwise, as he says in the video, we are “back to an editorial picture in a magazine that has to function in a different way”.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning? I think this is a complex question. Badger (2014, p72) notes that “such is the tricky nature of photographic representation that even the most ‘factual’ of documentary photographs can have their meanings altered drastically by context, by the text of a caption, or by juxtaposing them with other photographs”. If this is our starting point, then we can say that documentary photography IS art – there is no separation. If the meaning is largely in the mind of the viewer, as Seawright states, then the question becomes meaningless – whatever label we wish to apply (“documentary” or “art”), there is not necessarily a change in meaning, because the viewer will make their own interpretation in any case and the meaning for them is not necessarily the meaning the photographer had in mind.

At the risk of moving a little too far from the well-established academic world, Joel Grimes in his series Creative Expression in Photography, defined art as “the manifestation of self-expression”. While I’m sure that Grimes is not seen as the last word on the definition of art, his definition has the helpful aspect that it reinforces why context is so important. Context gives us a hint of what the artist was trying to express i.e. an insight into his/her self-expression. In Seawright’s case, the context is helpfully given by the short introductory text and even more so, by the caption on each image. In the end we see that the boundaries between “documentary” and “art” photography are very fluid and not very relevant to the viewer in any case.

References

Badger, Gerry (2014) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited

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