Photojournalism is a word that has been coined to describe news images, i.e. images that are made to support news stories. This type of photography can often be regarded (perhaps sometimes mistakenly) as a factual way of presenting information to the public. However, we only need to visit a news stand on any typical day to see that the viewpoint that these images present to us are typically more reflective of the Publisher’s / Photographer’s employer’s own agenda than a strictly unbiased representation of the ‘Truth’.
This argument has been debated by many photographers, art critiques and scholars over the years. Three prominent writers who have examined this topic are Marta Rosler in her 1981 essay, In, Around and Afterthoughts’ available to read in the book ‘The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography’, Edited and published by Richard Bolton, MIT Press Cambridge. Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’ Penguin. Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her 1994 essay ‘Inside/Out’ available to read in the book ‘Public Information, Desire, Disaster, Document’ Edited by Kara Kirk, Published by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. All three of these author’s works are summarized in a very helpful book ‘Basic Critical Theory for Photographers by Ashley la Grange, published by Focal Press.
Martha Rosler’s 1981 essay, ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’
Walker Evans (1903 – 1975)
– In Rosler’s essay she looks at the photograph used in social politics between the haves and have-nots, she begins by asking why are photographers still making documentary style photographs of the Bowery area on New York, notorious for its drunks and down and outs which have has been covered by many photographers over the years with much questionable motives. She states that documentary photography in the USA represents, ‘a liberal social conscience’. However, she makes the argument that documentary photography has failed to achieve any status of ‘truth’ as it gained associations with ‘muckspreading’ and has ‘been partly strangled by the myth of journalistic objectivity’. She argues that the believability of documentary photography has come under attack from two political opposed camps. The left attack it as being a social institution that serves only the wealthy and helps to enforce the wealthy classes dominance over the poor. The right sees an attack on its truthfulness beneficial to their standpoint which considers social inequalities and elites as natural.
To support her argument She examines the history of documentary photography in the USA beginning at the turn of the century when some socially concerned individuals such a Jacob Riis tried to highlight the plight of the poor migrant works living and working in the slums on New York, the Farm Security Association (FSA) of the 1930’s and 40’s to changing attitudes in the later part of the 20th century.
She argues that in the early days of documentary photography by photographers such as Lewis Hine who were ‘propagandizing social work’ and trying to right wrongs, didn’t understand that it was not in the interest for the establishments to right these wrongs, as these wrongs were essential to the social system. She cynically argues that these conscientious, privileged, do-gooders were simply expressed sympathy for the poor and appealed to the self-interest of the privileged. They were making a strong case for charity rather than self-help.’ She goes on to make the case that, ‘charity is an argument for the preservation of class as it encourages the giving of little in order to pacify potentially dangerous lower classes.’
She gives examples of famous documentary style images to support her opinions. In the 1930’s, the period of the Great Depression in the USA and the Dust Bowl disaster an organization was set-up called the FSA to investigate and report back Washington the situation amongst the farming community as their work photographers were sent out to document what the saw. One such photographer was Dorothea Lange and she came across a women and her children in California who were victims of the depression, she took some photographs and made a note in her diary that she (the mother) ‘She thought that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.’ One of these photographs was to become one of the most iconic photographs ever produced and has been used re-used copied, imitated all across the world. Although the picture has become so famous no such fame or fortune fell upon the subject or her children. It has been argued that the camp that she was living in at that time received funding for better facilities that the mother Mrs. Thompson would have benefited from. The point that Rosler is making is that again nothing was done to help Mrs. Thomson get out of her poverty trap and when a follow up story was made in the 1970’s her identity was revealed to the world for the first time and she was still impoverished living on state benefits in a Caravan / Trailer. Rosler uses Mrs. Thompson case as an example of how documentary photography can abuse / victimize its subjects by publicly humiliating them by exposing their misery and in Mrs. Thompson’s case she suffered this form of victimization twice the second time with the 1970’s follow up story. Rosler also uses another example of multi exploitation of victims of documentary photography and uses another FSA photograph taken in the 30’s and published in the 40’s of a Tenant Farmers Wife and published in a book ‘Let us Praise Famous Men’ which documented the marginalized sharecroppers and children. A follow up story in the late 70’s published in the New York Times Magazine – Rosler cynically states that there a double irony with this follow up story as it first re-consigns the original story from marginal and pathetic to marginality and pathos and gives away the victims true identity thus making the subject a new victim. She also points out that the type of reader of the New York Times will get a certain satisfaction from this story that although the poorer are now better off they haven’t caught up.
Rosler has clearly put a lot of thought, research and work in to these arguments; but I am not sure she is fare in her judgments. She talks with the power on hindsight. When these photographs were taken the photographer was trying to show the world what they themselves saw. Riis and Lewis Hines tried to use photographs for a good cause, how their photographs were later seen, used, read or edited was beyond their control. The problem with anything a man does is that it can be often interpreted by others in ways beyond their control. This can be true of photographs – we will see what we want to see. A photograph of an unconscious drunk can be seen either as an image to highlight the plight of a down and out or cynically regarded as exploiting a vulnerable man’s dignity. Is it important to understand the photographer’s agenda or is more important to simply see the image and take from it what you like? After all, you are going to anyway.
Having said that I believe that a photograph can change situations providing the image is seen at the right time in the right place. I believe that an image has to be topical if it is to make the most impact. For example the migrant mother at the time of the depression when any people across the world were experiencing hard times the almost saintly stoic pose of the mother and child touched a chord with millions. Images of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau at the end of the war probably had maximum impact because by then hatred for Germany and Nazis was at its zenith and also perhaps a war tired world needed that jolt to remind them for what the fighting and suffering had been for.
Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’
– In this book Sontag believes that the human psyche becomes deadened to the effects of shocking images of war and death. She refers to her own experience that she had when first seeing photographs of Bergen- Belsen and Dachau in a Santa-Monica book store, July 1945 when she was only 12. She can now refer to a time before and after she had seen these images and experienced ‘the epiphany’ as a result of these shocking pictures. However, she goes on to say that as time has passed and more and more similar images have flooded the viewing world she believes that a saturation point has been reached were it is now difficult, if not impossible, to experience that sense of shock and horror. At the time of writing this only 30 years had passed and images of carnage, destruction and death was almost a daily occurrence with images coming back from the Vietnam war.
I agree with this argument (to a degree), as we have all become more familiar with pictures of the holocaust, world war one and two, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. These photos all begin to take on a similar image in our minds and unless they are able to touch us on a more personal level such as somewhere where we have lived, people we have known, children like our own, etc. then the new images that we see on a daily bases won’t necessarily move us as perhaps they are intended. However, exceptions to this are events that are extremely dramatic and rare such as the events of 911 in New York. However, I personally liken this type of photographic genre to be similar to Hollywood’s horror movies that have to keep finding new ideas for even gorier and stomach churning stories and images in order to keep providing the audiences with a feeling of shock and horror for which they are demanding. We now need to see something very extraordinary in a picture to effect us like that of Sontag’s experience or of many of us with 911. I refer to an experience that can be identified as how we were before and how we were after.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s 1994 essay, ‘Inside/Out’
– Published in the book ‘Public Information, Desire, Disaster Document’, Edited by Kara Kirk, Published by San-Francesco Museum for Modern Art. – In Solomon-Godeau’s essay she argues that there are two types of documentary photography, Inside and Out.
The first are of images taken by a photographer who is involved and a part of the subject matter ‘an insider’. She gives as an example of this type of photography as taken by Nan Goldin with her photographic work entitled “Ballard of Sexual Dependency” a collection of photographs documenting her stormy relationship with her boyfriend with candid shots of both her and her boyfriend together. Clearly she had kept her camera with her all the time; so her boyfriend appears to be behaving naturally as if the camera isn’t there. Her project, ‘The Other Side’, Goldin used this same ‘insider’ technique with her transsexual friends, living with these people she was able to photograph them in normally very private moments. Despite the closeness of the subject matter Goldin felt that the camera still leaves something out of the image something that a mere machine can not capture. “If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing.” Solomon-Godeau acknowledges, “that both of these works can be considered as exemplary of the insider position.” However, with regards to ‘The Other Side’ Solomon-Godeau questions, “how does the insider position determine the reception of these images or even the nature of the content?” Solomon-Godeau goes on to reason that for example to photos of her friends dressing / undressing, indicating the intimate relationship the photographer has with the subject, ‘has a specific valency with respect to cross-dressing and transvestism’. In other words these images can be read as either identities, roles, masquerades or “third genders”, as the title of “drag queen” or “transvestite” suggests a transforming through dressing-up.’ These images record moments in that transformation from male to extravagant fantasy, Hollywood style femininity and glamour, documenting a ritual that is itself about exteriority, appearance, performance. Solomon-Godeau points out, ‘that the very presence of a camera as they dress or undress, make love or bathe – instates a third term, even as the photographer wishes disavow it.’ – ‘The photographers own eyes is inevitably frustrated by the very mechanism of the camera – which cannot penetrate beyond that which is simply, there’.
The second – Out, is documentary photographs taken by an outsider, amongst the photographers Solomon-Godeau refers to is Arbus, who photographed social and physical deviants in a way that prevented compassionate involvement. Susan Sontag described Arbus’ work as morbid voyeurism and Sontage uses Arbus as an example of photographs taken from the outside, ‘On Photography’. America Seen Through Photographs, Darkly’.
I personally don’t think that you need to be on the inside to produce a successful documentary project; but you do need close co-operation with those that are in ‘the inside’ in order for your work to imply any insight to the subject matter. I would simply refer anyone to a scientific documentary show such as BBC’s Horizon or reading a magazine journal such as ‘The Economist’, or trade journals.