Exercise: Sarah Pickering – Public Order


Look at some more images from this series on the artist’s website.

  • How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
  • Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading? Make some notes in your learning log.

On purpose, I looked at the full set of Pickering’s images in the series on her website before reading the course notes. I had a strong sense of unease, wondering what was the story behind these images. The boarded-up windows plus some burned-out buildings made me think of Northern Ireland, although I did notice that the boarding-up of the windows and doors seemed to be a little too neat. At some point, it became clear that some of the buildings were just facades, which made me wonder if I was looking at a film production site – clearly this is not a real town.

Pickering’s work could be called documentary photography only in the sense that it captures a certain place in an unbiased way – we could imagine standing at the same locations and seeing for ourselves what Pickering captured. On the other hand, it is misleading because things are not what they seem. The key thing which is lacking is the context.

Douglas Hurn puts it very well in On Being a Photographer (2001):

“The fact remains that if I were called, or called myself, a documentary photographer it would imply, to most people in this day and age, that I was taking pictures of some objective truth — which I am not.”

Hurn makes the point later that the link between his observations of reality and “truth” are tenuous at best and that “the only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like — under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation”.

What Hurn is saying is that there is always an element of subjectivity and interpretation and that our ideas (more in the past than in the present) that photography provides a truly objective view is not correct and never was. But it is precisely this interpretative sweet spot that Paul Seawright looks for in his series Sectarian Murder and we can imagine that it’s the same area that Sarah Pickering was looking for in Public Order.

Liz Wells (2015) makes the point about how ideas of documentary photography have evolved. She uses a quote from William Stott to illustrate what documentary meant in 1930s America: “The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content”. She goes on to say that “there was an assumption that the world was productive of facts and that those facts could be communicated to others in a transparent way, free of the complex codes through which narratives are structured.” Quite clearly, as Hurn also points out, these ideas are dated and the boundary between documentary photography and other styles is not so clear as we might have thought back in the 1930s.


Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2001) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (3rd edition). Washington: LensWork

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23.09.15)


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