If you’re interested in the critical debates around photojournalism, try and make time to find out more about at least one of these critical positions during your work on Part One.
Three Critical Viewpoints
1 Charity – Martha Rosler
“…which political battles have been fought and won by someone for
someone else?” (Rosler (1981) in Bolton, 1992, p.307)
Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis
Yes in this instance I think she is being unfair. From my research into Lewis Hine I feel he was striving to influence a positive social change for reforming workers rights, for example the cotton mill child labourers. Hine was ‘frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foreman’ (Wikipedia) .I do however get her point that photography/photographers can be manipulated for political gain whether knowingly or unknowingly on the photographers part i.e. a photograph that was taken for one purpose could later be used to deliver a completely different message. This case is also argued within Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the pain of others’.
I would argue against the points made about documentary photography serving the wealthy as a means to ‘legitimise and enforce the wealthy classes dominance over the poorer classes’ p118 Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. I would say at this point in time for me documentary photography and citizen photography empowers everyone regardless of class to hold those in authority or a position of power to account for their actions or decisions they make. To record, to document visually events, to give a platform where perhaps otherwise a platform would not otherwise exist. The challenge is that as a photographer you need to make money to survive, there is a financial element and also an element of striving for ‘success’, being a ‘successful’ photographer. Having researched a number of photographers it would appear a number of them are or went broke, Lewis Hine being an example of this.
I question what has driven the photographer to take these pictures? What is the motivation behind a piece of documentary photography? Did a photographer have a preconceived idea when pulling together a photographic series? Did they only photograph things/subjects which fit with that preconceived idea or did they develop it as the evidence was presented before the,? Did they ignore the rest? Did they find the idea as they were going along? Were they presented with an ideology by someone else or a group of people and were asked to collect photographs to support the idea? Are they presenting truth, reality, both sides of an argument? Its not just about what’s in the photograph buts what’s missing.
Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising?
Touching on what I have said above, I struggle in part with knowing (understandably) a photographer needs to earn a living, so is their work influenced in some way by this, do they photograph something controversial because they think it will ‘sell’? Or are they genuinely trying to bring about positive action to make the world a better place. Can photography even do that? I don’t really know for sure but I think it can influence it.
You could question whether some of this work is patronising but sometimes people don’t see what’s right in front of them unless you present it in an engaging way.
Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run?
This is an interesting question. It is touched on in chapter 5 of Basic Critical Theory for Photographers page 117 discussing the photograph by Dorothea Lange of Mrs Thompson. Who benefits from the photograph? The photographer has benefited from her work documenting depression era America, the photograph of Mrs Thompson ‘Migrant Mother’ is now iconic and I guess you could question whether the subject directly benefited at all? I understand that through the publication of the photographs, aid was sent to improve conditions in the migrant camp. If the photographer had not been there to document, would any change have taken place at all? Or are photographers just using their subjects to benefit their own means?
Can photography change situations?
I would like to think that photography can influence change. I really hope it can. Action changes situations. I don’t think a photograph alone can change a situation, it needs some form of context, title and/or written explanation, the integrity/authenticity of a photograph needs to be verified otherwise I feel it runs the immediate threat of being dismissed, ignored, lost in the mix.
2 Compassion fatigue – Susan Sontag
“In these last decades ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as
much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” (Sontag, 1979, p.21)
Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change?
I have recently finished reading the book ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ by Susan Sontag so this comes at an apt time. I found the subject matter of this book hard to read, partly because it resonated so truthfully with me, it was a fascinating book to read. It touched on some thoughts I have been mulling over since Expressing Your Vision after I read and watched some work by the British photographer Tim Hetherington who was primarily a war photographer and photojournalist. Why do some photographers chase these types of photos? It seems to become like an addiction? I am not sure if its an addiction to the image, war/suffering or the idea that by capturing these images they may help to influence a change or that society will seek to make a change, take action.
Susan Sontag touches on the use of photography to bring about change for example in the Vietnam war. She also speaks of the power of photography of capturing death forever within a photograph:
‘To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do and pictures taken by photographers out in the field of the moment of (or just before) death are among the most celebrated and often reproduced of war photographs’. p43 Chapter 4 ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’
What is our fascination with vicariously viewing the world? Do we find comfort in our own lives by knowing that someone else has it worse off than us, our we ashamed to admit this?
I think some things have to be documented and seen by the world in order that the perpetrators can’t deny they ever happened.
Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses? Read your answer again when you’ve read the next section on aftermath photography and note whether your view has changed. See also: http://lightbox.time.com/2014/01/28/when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/#1 [accessed 24/02/14]
Sontag touches on the photographs seen from Nazi concentration camps just after the prisoners were liberated from the camps. I remember as a child visiting the site of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. I remember studying history as a child and being shocked by the photographs during the 2nd world war of dead bodies piled up in mass graves. The things human beings do to other human beings is absolutely horrendous and yet since the liberation in 1945 these kind of atrocities, genocide have happened again and again around the world. I have to question whether photographs can change humanity as a species. I do think it is of vital importance that these types of atrocities are documented visually as evidence, so that they can’t be lost to history or denied at a later date.
I think over the last 75-100 years we have seen such horrific images from war and I do question whether society as a whole has stopped paying attention. I question whether war mongers play on this and have to pump up the horror even more to get the same level of attention. I think John Berger touches on it in one of his books about scrolling through a newspaper you are presented with images of war and famine whilst on the next page you are being sold the latest car or gadget in a commercial, its similar with news media on the TV, you can flick from a range of atrocities around the world, then a good news article, then the weather. On top of that we are distracted by our smartphones, social media and the internet. Visual over consumption.
In many ways I do think we have become desensitized but I do think that at the heart of humanity there is good in people and that images of war are shocking to people. I am not sure people know what to do next with the information that is presented to them, ‘ok those group of people over there are killing this other group of people, what do you want me to do about it, now you have given me this information?’ Perhaps it is the challenge for the photographer to say, ‘hey, look here, you need to see this and you need to pay attention, this is important’ but I think its society’s responsibility to take the next step.
3 Inside/Out – Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?
For me, it comes down to…too close or not close enough. You can’t win.
I don’t believe you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project. Perhaps it depends on the subject matter, I can see both sides of the argument. You could question whether an insider would have a better understanding of a subject through lived experience or you could question whether they are too close to the subject matter to see it objectively.
I can understand the voyeuristic perception of the outsider peering in, judging a subject or situation. I guess it really depends on the individual photographer and what they are looking for in a documentary project. I wouldn’t agree that Outsider photography is ‘victim photography’ or the idea of the ‘morbid voyeur’. I can see the challenge for an Insider would be trying to show a subject without a strong bias towards say for example, their family or friends.
I think a more balanced approach would be to somehow show both an insider and outsider view or move away from it entirely, which is hard as we all come with our own set of ideas from our own upbringing about what we see to be right and wrong in the world. Perhaps a shared approach, a mixed photographic project with photographers both insiders and outsiders?
- Susan Sontag, 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others. New Ed Edition. Penguin Books, Limited (UK).
- Ashley la Grange, 2013. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. 1 Edition. Focal Press.
- Lewis Hine Wikipedia
- Lewis W. Hine on Getty Museum
- Lewis Hine: The child labour photos that shamed America – BBC
- Dorothea Lange
- Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others