Category Archives: Project 4 The gallery wall – documentary as art

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: (Accessed on 23.09.15)

Research Point: Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder


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: [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?


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.


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