Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

This post is part two of an essay on Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities project. You can read part one here.

Invisible Cities clearly must be considered as part of a tradition of documentary photography and as such it raises a number of interesting questions that I will now turn to. The first of these is the problematic issue of a photographer from outside a particular culture or environment trying to make meaningful work about, or within, it. Martha Rosler has been deeply critical of the documentary tradition, particularly when it involves a privileged outsider shedding light on marginalised or disadvantaged communities. She would see this practice as merely reinforcing existing power relations and doing little to address any of the root causes of the situation. Similar difficulties are identified by Stuart Hall: he describes how stereotyping is used to maintain power in a society or culture by marginalising certain groups, and how photographic representations, whether intentionally or not, play an important role in this (Edward Said has also written persuasively of how Western representations of the Orient  have played a pivotal role in maintaining the power relationships between East and West). As a white European working in Africa, with its historical and contemporary difficulties with colonialism and post-colonialism, Seawright runs the risk of falling into this trap, a situation he is by no means unaware of:

Until I accepted the Imperial War Museum commission in 2002 to respond to the war in Afghanistan, I’d never considered making work that extended beyond my sphere of direct experience. I wrestled with the problems that making work in another country presented, not least that I have been critical of non-indigenous practice in Northern Ireland

(Paul Seawright quotation from interview with Russel Roberts)



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This post is something of a departure from the usual business on this blog. It is an essay I wrote on Paul Seawright, focusing in particular on his Invisible Cities work. This work comprises of photographs taken over a three-year period in sub-Saharan African cities. In many senses the work goes against the grain of common photographic representations of Africa. I describe the work and deal with a number of issues that arise from it. The essay is quite long, so I’ll split it into two parts. This is part one.

Photographic representations of Africa tend to be dominated by certain well- worn themes. We have the photo-journalistic images of war, disease and famine – portraying a continent riven by seemingly intractable problems and a living hell for its inhabitants. We have the ma jestic grandeur of the landscape and the animals – suggesting a timeless, Edenic paradise. We have the National Geographic style portrayals of indigenous tribespeople, often accompanied by well-meaning articles describing how their “way of life” is under threat. A pertinent illustration of this can be had by typing “Africa”‘ as a keyword into Google’s image search facility. The majority of results returned are maps of Africa, but if we exclude these, almost all of the rest fit into the categories mentioned above. Those that don’t form minor categories of themselves: smiling schoolchildren; white aid workers or volunteers interacting with Africans; and most interestingly, images illustrating the growing influence of China in sub-Saharan Africa. None of these do much to expand the outsiders knowledge of, or insight into, the continent.

Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities comprises of photographs taken in the sub-Saharan cities of Lagos, Addis Adaba, Lusaka and Johannesburg, and goes very much against the grain of these common representations. Seawright is, of course, not the only photographer working in this manner. A close parallel would be the work of Guy Tillim who has carried out similar projects on urban Africa. In fact, there is a growing body of contemporary African photography that challenges the common representations – for example, the Snap Judgements exhibition held in New York in 2006. I do suggest however, that such work is the exception rather than the rule. (more…)

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In this essay from 1972 John Berger questions the effectiveness of graphic war photography and in doing so anticipates many of the debates about documentary that were soon to come. It was originally published in New Society magazine and subsequently reproduced in the 1980 collection, About Looking.

Writing during the closing phases of the Vietnam war, Berger begins by describing both the extent of the American bombing campaign of the north of that country, and the indiscriminately cruel nature of the lethal armanents being used. He notes a photograph in the newspaper by Don McCullin, from earlier in the war, depicting a man holding his injured child in the aftermath of a bombing. The actual photograph is not reproduced in the book but it is most likely the one below that Berger is referring to.


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In this article Levi-Strauss writes about the relationship between aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography and essentially mounts a defence of the role of the aesthetic within this genre.

He starts by observing that the right in America have always recognised the subversive, and deeply political role, of the aesthetic in art and this explains their hostility to it. On the other hand, left-wing critics and theorists (Rosler et al.) have made ubiquitous a view that denies a central role for aesthetics in genres such as documentary. An example of this in mainstream writing would be Ingrid Sichy’s criticism of Sebastiao Salgado, which upbraids him on numerous fronts, but in particular accuses him of being more interested in the aesthetics of his images than in the plight of his subjects.

Levi-Strauss identifies the roots of this viewpoint to be the writings of Walter Benjamin in the 1930s but denies that Benjamin’s criticisms are applicable to contemporary photographers such as Salgado. His basis for this is that Benjamin had in mind a particular movement (New Objectivity) which explicitly presented poverty and political struggle as objects of “comfortable contemplation”, whereas Salgado’s work shows real solidarity with his subjects and aims to confront viewers with the reality of hunger, tragedy and suffering. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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from Documentary Now! Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the VisDocumentary Now!ual Arts

In this essay Maartje van den Heuvel examines the engagement of documentary photography with the art world and argues that we should consider this in the context of an increased visual literacy in our society, with documentary increasingly being used to hold a mirror to this visual culture.

Documentary photography has undergone radical changes in the last two decades as it has become increasingly appropriated into the art world.  Many people have questioned whether this signifies a new path for documentary and to what extent it can still function effectively in this new domain. Maartje van den Heuvel asserts that while these questions are continually under discussion, it is unwise to attempt to analyze this as an isloated phenomenon, but rather we should be considering it in the wider context of an ever-increasing visual literacy among our artists and our society as a whole.

She explains that our culture is becoming increasingly visual with an associated increase in visual literacy among viewers, consumers, image-makers and artists. Visually literate artists use visual means to analyze, reflect upon, and dissect all aspects of this visual culture and doumentary photography is but one aspect to be considered in this way. Contemporary artists who work in documentary photography are therefore often better understood as artists using the medium and conventions of documentary photography to examine documentary photography itself, along with it’s role in society and culture, rather than as documentary photographers pushing their work into the realms of art. The essay examines the work of documentary photographers with this in mind, and seeks to demonstrate that this signifies a general increase in visual literacy.


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