Martha Rosler is a visual artist whose writings on photography theory have been widely influential over the last two decades. In this essay, her concern is with how documentary photography can continue to function in the postmoden world.
The traditional practice of social documentary photography as a means of helping underprivileged, dispossessed or marginalised groups has become deeply problematic for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that photography’s status as a unique medium for offering direct insight into truthful reality has been destroyed – by the widespread use of digital manipulation on the one hand, and by the postmodern tendency to question and analyse the motives of the photographer (and dissect the possible multiple meanings of the work they produce) on the other.
The role of the documentarian as the privileged outsider shedding light on those underprivileged communities fortunate to benefit from the attention of his/her lens is no longer tenable. At the same time, the idea that marginalised communities should document their own struggles without the interference of “outside” agents is also fraught with difficulty, not least of which is the impossibility of defining what “outside” actually means in many contexts.
Rosler goes on to offer some early history of documentary. She describes the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, both of whom sought to show the depredations of the underprivileged in early 20th century US society. Of these, Hine engaged with his subjects far more, offering a more sympathetic portrayal of their plight. However, the strategy of photographing those at the receiving end of society’s injustices (or even it’s benefactors) is not as valid as it once was – postmodern thinkers insist it is the structure of the system that causes injustice, not the individuals who make up its winners or losers.
Rosler then addresses the issue of photographic credibility in more detail, admitting that in spite of the problems, photography remains a cornerstone of the documentation of events. She argues that this is largely attributable to the context in which the photographs are presented. For example, if they are presented as part of a report from a reputable media organisation, with associated codes of journalistic practice in place, they are likely to be accepted, without the reservations and complications she has outlined. These codes of practice are critically important to news photographers as they embody the notions of responsibility towards their viewers, their subjects, and indeed their own profession, that are crucial to the continued viability of their work. A genre of photography that is devoid of such responsbility is street photography, which Rosler criticises for this reason.
A possible methodology for overcoming these problems is to empower the subjects to create self-represetations and Rosler praises a number of photographers working in this vein (Wendy Ewald, Deborah Barndt). She warns though that this approach is not without difficulty – the channels of circulation through which the work is distributed can reimpose the same power relationships that the methdology sought to banish in the first place. It can also result in a cosy and sanitised view, and the skills of the facilitating photographer can be wasted.
These pressures and difficulties should not stop people from doing documentary, as the alternative is a retreat into the voyeuristic and narcissistic photography that is increasingly favoured by the art world, work which makes no attempt to examine the social context of those it depicts. Rosler cites the example of Richard Billingham here. Her conclusion is that documentary should strive to strike a balance between “observing the situation of others and expressing one’s own point of view and that this should be done within the context of an analytic framework that proposes remedies”.
This essay is fascinating stuff and clearly elucidates all sorts of difficulties with documentary. It’s a bit light on solutions to these problems though, other than a quite generic ‘manifesto’ at the end. It seems to me that many of the photographers mentioned in van den Heuvel‘s essay are acutely aware of the issues that Rosler raises, and are employing varied means to deal with them. It worries me that there seems to be no place for aesthetics in Rosler’s view of documentary photography. It can be argued that there is no place for aesthetics here, but that’s difficult to swallow if you view photography as an aesthetic form in the first place. Her thinking leads her to deride the genre of street photography as irresponsible and more about the ego of the picture-maker than about the subject(s) -it’s difficult to argue against that, but how do we square that with the fact that so much of the most compelling (and feted) photography of the 20th century came from that genre?
Shortly after reading Rosler’s essay I stumbled across this article on Jim Goldberg and his Open See project. This work seems to do some of the things Rosler is championing in her essay. It is about the”new Europeans” -displaced people arriving on European shores. In many cases, Goldberg takes snapshots of them them and then asks them to add their own text, consequently allowing the subject to speak directly.