Category Archives: Part 1: The photograph as document

Exercise: the manipulated image

Brief

Instead of using double exposures or printing from double negatives we now have the technology available to us to make these changes in post-production, allowing for quite astonishing results.

Use digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be.

To make a composite image you need to consider your idea and make the required amount of images to join together.

Upload the images and decide which image you’ll use as your main image and background. Use the magic wand to select sections of image from the others you wish to move into your background image. Copy via layer and drag into the background. Do this repeatedly until you have all the pieces of your puzzle in place. In order to make it more convincing, use the erase tool on each layer to keep the edges soft and to create a better illusion. Be aware of perspective and light and shadows for the most effective results.

Research

In thinking about my response to this exercise, I did some research, starting with the suggested Peter Kennard Photo Op series. I also took inspiration from the C&N blog of a fellow student – Andrew Fitzgibbon (see here) – who had a nice response to the exercise showing something that didn’t exist, but which could exist. I liked this idea of stretching documentary photography just a little bit to show something plausible, yet non-existing.

Following on from Wendy McMurdo’s Young Musicians series, I also look at her more recent Algorithmic Children work where the manipulation becomes much more obvious and we move into the realm of fantasy.

Wendy McMurdo - Algorithmic Gym Hall (iv), 2015

Wendy McMurdo – Algorithmic Gym Hall (iv), 2015

Christopher Relander

Christopher Relander from Jarred & Displaced

Doing some Google searches eventually landed me at Christoffer Relander’s site and his Jarred & Displaced series. I really liked the idea of somehow taking nature and preserving it in a jar. Relander explains it like this: “I play with the idea of being an ambitious collector; conserving my environments into a large personal collection. Most landscapes are from where I grew up, on the countryside in the south of Finland, where my roots still lie. Separation anxiety to my childhood is simply what absorbed me into this project.”

From this inspiration came my idea of playing on the concept of the classic Swiss “chocolate box” landscape. Why not put such a landscape in the box? It’s a gentle take on the phrase “it does what it says on the tin”.

Response

fake-image

As luck would have it, I managed to find a Swiss chocolate box with a picture of the Matterhorn (known as Mont Cervin in the French speaking part), which I paired with a photo I took quite a few years ago. I spent far, far too long wrestling with layer effects and managed to get a kind of a glow. I think it more-or-less puts across the idea. The chocolates went to a good cause.

 

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Exercise: Defining the Real in the Digital Age

Brief

Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this on the student website.

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.

Response

Note: after not having much success finding the article on the student site, I used instead the section titled “Defining the Real in the Digital Age” in Wells (2015).

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

As Wells points out, “we have always known that photographs are malleable, contrived and slippery, but have, simultaneously, been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more ‘real’ than other kinds of images”.  If any doubt remains about just how long people have been tampering with images, the website Photo Tampering Throughout History is mandatory viewing. And yet, many people who well aware of such alterations still cling to a belief in some kind of connection between photography and objective truth. It is this kind of self-deception which is particularly interesting.

Joel Grimes - Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Joel Grimes – Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Roland Barthe’s conception of the nature of a photograph that it is trace of an event in the world was already on shaky ground considering the quite amazing manipulations carried out with film, but with digital technology, the illusion is completely shattered.

How does his concept hold when thinking about composited images (e.g. Joel Grimes)?. What about images constructed entirely using software? We could try and finesse the situation by saying that they are digital images –  they’re not photographs because they fail the basic definition of “painting with light”. That sounds a little desperate and old fashioned.

It’s possible to say that truth is an independent concept which is not dependent on photography in general and that any connections we had in our minds between the two was simply naive. We don’t demand that a painting or sculpture be “true” in any sense, so why should we demand it of photography?

Having said that, if we look at specific sub-genres of photography, we could say that truth is a very important, even essential, aspect independent of the exact medium: analogue or digital. Professional photography such as medical imaging (x-rays, for example) or crime scene photographs have a very specific purpose: to reveal detail and to be objective in order to allow decisions to be made. As Wells says, “It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography. Any radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph.”

Perhaps the time is long overdue to drop any pretensions of objectivity and just think of photography as a medium for the creation of art, like any other medium. Susan Sontag (quoted in La Grange, 2005) noted that “photography, like other art forms, increasingly defines realism as not what is ‘really’ there, but what the artist ‘really’ sees. The answer is simply in our definitions: photography (excluding the sub-genres discussed earlier) never was about truth – it’s about art and there are no requirements on art to be truthful at all.

References

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

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

Exercise: Sarah Pickering – Public Order

Brief

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.

References

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)

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

Exercise: reportage

Brief

Find a street that particularly interests you – it may be local or further afield. Shoot 30 colour images and 30 black and white images in a street photography style.

In your learning log, comment on the differences between the two formats. What difference does colour make? Which set do you prefer and why?

Approach

The area I chose was around the older part of Geneva, starting at the railway station and walking towards the old town. It’s an area I know well and has lots of opportunities for street photography.

Rather than follow the brief to the letter, I decided to take advantage of digital photography and the ability to shoot in colour and easily convert to B&W. Since the focus of this exercise is about the differences between B&W and colour, it made sense to me to shoot a single set of photos and produce two outputs. In that way, differences in content can be ignored and the focus can just be on the format.

Technically, this meant shooting in RAW, importing to Lightroom and producing a set of colour JPEGS and also a set of B&W JPEGS. I took care to keep the processing the same in order to really compare the two formats.

Response

Differences

The most obvious difference is that colour gives a sensation of “being there” – of reality, while the black and white versions have a more abstract feel. On the basis of a purely personal preference, I feel that black and white street photography works best when the subject is “up close and personal” – where there seems to be little separation between the photographer and the subject. I think of the great examples of Garry Winogrand and more recently, those of Eamonn Doyle.

In this situation, I feel that colour rarely adds anything, but can certainly take away from the result due to distractions. On the other hand, I feel that sweeping streetscapes are better done in colour because the objective is presumably to give a feel for what the place is like rather that isolating one or more particular subjects.

On a technical note, the separation of the subject from background is sometimes easier with colour – it gives more options. A good example is #061 – the lady checking her phone with the shop window in the background. The separation is much better in the colour version and the thing which caught my eye – the poster in the window – is more pronounced in the colour version. Working on the Black & White Mix in Lightroom certainly improved the separation in this particular case (see below), but of course that doesn’t always work – it depends on the organisation of colours.

bw-drg-30dec2016-061-2

bw-drg-30dec2016-061 take 2

Preferences

I prefer the black and white set, being aware that I’m probably biased from seeing a great deal of classic street photography. There’s a sense of drama, abstraction, of reality being taken out of  context and put under the microscope. I can’t help shake the notion that the colour versions look like “snapshots’ and lack something. I feel that overall, colour doesn’t add much to this particular set, although I appreciate that people like Martin Parr may disagree.

Research Point: Colour & the Street

Brief

Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.

  • What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?
  • Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?
  • How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

Research

Helen Levitt

New York August 31, 1913 – March 29, 2009

Helen Levitt was active from the late 30s to the 90s and during that period transitioned from B&W to colour. In the 60s through to the 80s she used the same dye transfer process loved by William Eggleston. Her photos are of ordinary people: kids playing, families, business men.

Joel Meyerowitz

New York March 6, 1938 –

According to his Wikipedia entry, after being inspired by Robert Frank, Meyerowitz started photographing the streets of New York city in B&W. After alternating between B&W and colour, he permanently adopted colour in 1972. Among many other achievements he became famous as the only photographer allowed to document the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York city.

Paul Graham

Stafford, UK: 1956 –

According to the short bio on the Pace Gallery website, Paul Graham is a British photographer living and working in New York City. In 1981, Graham completed his first acclaimed work, A1: The Great North Road. His use of color film in the early 1980s, at a time when British photography was dominated by traditional black-and-white social documentary, had a revolutionizing effect on the genre.

Joel Sternfeld

New York 30 Jun 1944 –

Joel Sternfeld: McLean, Virginia, December 1978

Joel Sternfeld: McLean, Virginia, December 1978

According to the Luhring Augustine gallery website, Sternfeld is known for large-format colour photos that record roadside America as initiated by Walker Evans in the 1930s. His photos tend to be of ordinary people on the street, at the beach and sometimes show humour such as the photo on the left of the fireman picking a pumpkin while a building blazes behind.

Martin Parr

UK 23 May 1952 –

Martin Parr is a British documentary photographer specialising in images that take an “intimate, satirical and anthropological look at aspects of modern life” (Wikipedia). In 1994 he became a member of Magnum Photos. Badger (2014) remarks that Parr has embraced “a fundamental part of what photography does best – take us there” – he has found a way to “contemplate our present and our past”.

William Klein

US 1928 –

According to the Artnet site:

“William Klein is an American artist known for his unconventional style of abstract photography. Although similar in subject matter to other documentary photographers such as Diane Arbus and Saul Leiter, as well as fashion photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Klein’s images broke away from established modes through his use of high-grain film and wide angles to create his often out-of-focus black-and-white prints.”

Rather than being impersonal and from a distance, his photos tend to be relatively close to his subjects and it’s very clear that they usually know they are being photographed.

Saul Leiter

Pittsburgh 3 December 1923 – New York 26 Nov 2013

According to the Howard Greenberg Gallery website Leiter moved to New York to study painting at the age of 23. He became interested in photography via his friendship with W. Eugene Smith. He started with B&W, however by the 1950s (actually, 1940s according to Harrison 2015) he began to work in colour as well, making him one of the earliest adopters of colour for art photography.

Eamonn Doyle

Dublin 1969 –

doyle3According to the Michael Hoppen Gallery website, Doyle graduated with a Diploma in Photography from IADT in 1991. After spending the majority of 20 years in the music business, he returned to photography in 2008. “Most of Doyle’s work is produced in and around the Dublin city centre where he has lived for the past 20 years, and these images prove that some of the best photographs can be taken on your very own doorstep. ”

Doyle has a particular style. Many of his B&W images are quite imposing and dramatic, while his colour images tend to be quieter and often show the backs of people.

 

What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?

Colour had both a technical an aesthetic difference. On the technical side, at the time of the early users of colour, the process for developing and printing colour film was complex and expensive – certainly beyond the capabilities of individuals. Additionally, B&W films had developed to be relatively fast – ISO400 was available, compared with the earliest Kodachrome which was originally  ASA25, then 64 came later. This had the effect of restricting users to slower shutter speeds and/or wider apertures.

On the aesthetic side, colour was seen by many as vulgar because it was associated with advertising. But for some, this was precisely the attraction. William Eggleston, an adopter of colour from the 1960s said in an interview with the Whitney Museum (2009) that he “wanted to see a lot of things in colour because the world is in colour”.

Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?

hcb1

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Roman Amphitheater, Valencia, Spain, 1933

According to the article Photography and Surrealism from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004), the surrealists were active from the mid-1920s and photography came to play a central role not only due to “the medium’s facility in fabricating uncanny images”, but also due to the ability to manipulate and transform images “through the prism of Surrealist sensibility” so that they were radically different from the original.

Badger (2014) puts it this way: “They [the Surrealists] were intrigued by photography, partly because of its mechanical nature, and partly because of its innate ability to slip expectedly between reality and unreality”.

Man Ray is often cited as a leading surrealist due to his careful manipulation, especially at the printing stage, however the Surrealists also appreciated the work of what we might otherwise “straight” photographers such as Eugène Atget. In his “photographs of the deserted streets of old Paris and of shop windows haunted by elegant mannequins, the Surrealists recognized their own vision of the city as a ‘dream capital’, an urban labyrinth of memory and desire.”

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) (2004), Cartier-Bresson began to make photographs in 1931 that reveal the influence of both Cubism and Surrealism – “bold, flat planes, collagelike compositions, and spatial ambiguity—as well as an affinity for society’s outcasts and the back alleys where they lived and worked.” By 1952, his landmark publication The Decisive Moment, had shown that he’d formed his own direction. In that sense, we could see Cartier-Bresson as bridging the “golden period” of the Surrealists (generally thought to be from the early 30s through to the 60s, although there is in reality no end date).

Alex Webb

Alex Webb: Iquitos, Peru 1993

Even though Cartier-Besson had moved on by the early 50s, surrealism has never really died, but re-appears now in then, such as the example on the left by Alex Webb from The Suffering of Light (2011).

 

How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

Tony Ray-Jones: Derby Day 1967

Tony Ray-Jones: Derby Day 1967

From the OED: “Irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”.

Martin Parr as well as Tony Ray-Jones (see left) use irony by identifying scenes showing odd behaviour. A classic example is from Parr’s Last Resort series showing the woman sun-bathing on concrete in front of some sort of earth-moving equipment. Why precisely at that spot when there’s a sandy beach right beside her? Parr shows people relaxing at a declining seaside destination (New Brighton), but in a “clear-eyed, unsentimental view and sharp, lucid colour, that ensured a mixed reaction to the work” (Badger 2014:161).

Irony from American photographers is harder to find, but the example by Joel Sternfeld of the fireman buying a pumpkin while seeming to ignore the blazing house nearby is a good one. It’s harder to pick irony from humour in this case, but we could take the irony as coming from the calmness of the fireman’s shopping when (probably) he should be fighting the fire.

References

Artnet (s.d) William Klein. At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/william-klein/ (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

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

Department of Photographs (2004) “Photography and Surrealism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm (Accessed 22 Nov 2016)

Department of Photographs (2004) “Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cabr/hd_cabr.htm (Accessed 22 Nov 2016)

George Eastman House (1974) An Interview with Walker Evans: ‘The Thing Itself is Such a Secret and so Unapproachable’. Image Magazine, Vol. 17., No.4, December, 1974. At: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/interview-walker-evans-with-students.html (Accessed on 21 Nov 2016)

Harrison, Martin (2015), Saul Leiter: Early Color. Göttingen: Steidl

Howard Greenberg Gallery (s.d) Saul Leiter. At: http://www.howardgreenberg.com/artists/saul-leiter (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

LensCulture (s.d) Helen Levitt: New York Streets 1938 to 1990s. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/helen-levitt-helen-levitt-new-york-streets-1938-to-1990s (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

Webb, Alex (2011) The Suffering of Light. London: Thames and Hudson

Wikipedia (s.d) Joel Meyerowitz. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Meyerowitz (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

Wikipedia (s.d) Joel Sternfeld. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Sternfeld (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

Wikipedia (s.d) Paul Graham (photographer). At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Graham_(photographer) (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

Wikipedia (s.d) Martin Parr. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Parr (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

William Eggleston at the Whitney Museum of American Art  Whitney Museum (2009) At:  (Accessed 12-Jan-2016)

Research Point: photojournalism

Questions

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: http://lightbox.time.com/2014/01/28/ 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.

References

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

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

Pyle, Richard (2012) Vietnam War Photos that Made a Difference At: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/vietnam-war-photos-that-made-a-difference/?_r=0 (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)

Ritchin, Fred (2014) Syrian Torture Archive: When Photographs of Atrocities Don’t Shock. At: http://time.com/3426427/syrian-torture-archive-when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/?iid=sr-link1 (Accessed 20 Nov 2016)