Exercise: ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’

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Read the article ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ by Martha Rosler in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (p.303).

This article starts off describing a well-documented place in New York and how it has attracted lots of photographers, despite the presence of drunks being there. It describes the ‘muckraking’ associations with documentary photography, situations of poverty and despair. There is now concrete proof that these exist, due to them being photographed.

p304 quotes Jacob Riis (The Making of an American) talking about going to the ‘worst’ places in the early hours of the morning. There is mention of how photographers feel about the situations they are documenting. Lots of photographers are involved in some kind of social work. They are trying to reform what is happening. The situations are seen as a threat to rich society, as well as the photos helping to provide sympathy for the poor. There are lots of pictures where no-one is looking at the camera, they don’t appear aware that it is there. Sensationalism.

There is further discussion about the ‘Bowery’ subjects potentially being victims as they are unaware of what is going on. They may also become hostile when they find out they are being photographed. Documentary is seen as carrying information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful. The portrayal of people as helpless, pathetic migrant farm workers is one example. (p306).

The more liberal documentary of natural disasters is where there is no blame. They portray lots of children – charity etc.. There is also discussion about photos that will sell – do these exploit the children was a question that came up for me. Later pages talk about how photographs provide a historical record, for example an image by Elliott Erwitt, a staged image of a boy and man. (p312/3) There is then discussion about what happens to those who are photographed – is this relevant?

Dorothea Lange took a photo in 1936 of Florence Thompson who was later interviewed and and said that she got no financial gain from the photo and wonders what good it did her. (p315). The image portrayed the suffering of mankind. But there is a chance that others MAY have benefitted, it is hard to tell. There is later a discussion about how the poor are ashamed of being exposed as being poor, their images shown to the world. (p319).

Winogrand (p320) mentions that images can yield any narartive, and we are reminded that we only see what is in the image, not the whole situation. Later on, the author mentions how people judge those drunks portrayed in images taken at the Bowery. There is then a discussion about the relationship between text and images, and also power discussions. Women may be more critical of power relations as they have less power (p332).

Again for me the main issues brought up made me think about how we frame images to suit the audience, who are we trying to tell and what are we trying to tell them? Are we exploiting those less fortunate by telling their story, or is there a way we can genuinely help? I am also reminded of my time in China, where mainly positive events were documented, little evidence remains of negative situations.

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