Reflections on part 1: The photograph within documentary and as a document

Costa man_

O’Neill, A. Holborn (2016)

Initial understanding

I originally saw documentary photography as a real account of a particular event or situation. The purpose of which was often to expose or highlight a hidden truth with the intentions of reporting unjust circumstances although this was not an exclusive relationship. There were clear areas of relevance to journalism, protest and change. I also recognised that the photograph as a document played a fundamental role in areas such as security, control and surveillance.

What do I now think after part 1

Photographs are constructed they are not found, they are a representation, a picture, an image, they are not real. Equally it is the photographer who is responsible for the original context and narrative of the photograph thus providing the image with meaning. Also there is no such thing as absolute objectivity it does not exist, it is a social construct there is only subjectivity initiated by motive and need.
This leads to a disruption of the cognitive illusion, which creates the special relationship between photography and an objective reality or universal truth. That confusion arises if and when we can’t recognise and reconcile this objective reality as the authenticity and realness of the image is as much about how the concept of photography has developed in a social world as it is the photograph itself.

There are specific categories which have provided a structure for the development of photo-documentary for instance social documentary work typified by the images made by Dorothy Lange and the (FSA) Farm Security Administration, Photojournalism and Robert Capa’s images of the D-Day landings, Reportage typified by Henri Cartier-Bresson and art photography represented perhaps by Paul Seawright.

However this structure came about as much to interpret the development of the medium as much as any explicit need for structure and as time goes by there has been an increasing blurring of the lines and this will only continue as the medium continues to evolve. and as visual culture continues to converge, and so to must the categorisation of photography develop.

documentary post 1

Nick Hedges, 1971, as part of a project documenting the inner city slums in the 60s and 70s later appearing in the exhibition Make Life Worth Living (2014) arranged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the charity Shelter

An equally relevant part of any debate on photo-documentary is concerning the original and changing context. Photographs such as the one above taken by Nick Hedges in Liverpool 8 in the 1970s start of as one thing only to become another.

Earlier in our part 1 coursework the question was posed whether Sarah Pickering’s work Public Order was an example of effective documentary or was it misleading, well I certainly see this as an effective use of documentary. Equally Paul Seawright’s work is at times regarded more as art than documentary but this perspective on his work in my mind would be unjustified. As photography as a medium continues it’s development to continue to be relevant so must it’s categorisation. I would also add the photomontages such as Martha Rosler’s series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home into the documentary genre.

Documentary is still a very emotive subject because of the special relationship photography has with ‘the real’ and documentary tradition which puts the images of real situations at it’s very core. Photographs are powerful signals able to transmit and communicate meaning and all signals are made for a reason. As photographers we might focus on the debates which are important to us, we discuss the events we choose to discuss, we say the things that we want to say, the motives and reasoning may be mutable but the role of the photographer in creating the image, context and narrative and therefore message and meaning is irrefutable.

Reference list

Hedges N,(1971) image above taken from The Observer, p.10, 07/02/2016

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