Exercise: ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’


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.


Exercise: 5 Photos


For this exercise, we had to post 5 images in the OCA Flickr group with no information, and ask people to provide short captions or explanations.

The photos are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125594361@N06/sets/72157645919514632

Most of the explanations were spot on and it was a vey interesting exercise. I have come back to it 2 months after choosing the images and it was a good process of reflection to remember why I chose the particular images in the first place. Would I choose the same ones now?

Exercise: What Makes a Document?


We had to read a post on the OCA blog and then all the comments and decide if time or context were what made a document.

An interesting discussion! I believe that a photograph does not need context to be a document – even if we do not know what exactly it is showing, it still fulfils the definition of a document, which is a record of something. Whatever we shoot becomes a record of that moment, even if what we are shooting is a set-up shot. Like RobTM says, a photograph still exists without the back story. If we did not know the context for Jose’s photo, we would think up our own story for it, or see it as a record of something if we had a little information like where and when the photograph was taken. Richard Down also mentions that no context is needed for a photo to be a document.

Our view of a photo is influenced by our culture, and experiences. When I look at the photo of the 2 men in Spain, I see something totally different to someone who may be in Spain or related to the person like Jose. I would not have guessed that the person on the right is a member of the clergy! Whilst studying photography in China, we did some interesting comparisons of what we thought Chinese photographers may not shoot but we found interesting, and we also compared the photos from the same brief taken by Chinese and European photographers which was fascinating. How we all interpreted the brief was very much influenced a lot by culture it seemed, and what we were used to – for example the Chinese photographers often documented more positive moments but the Europeans might include more negative moments – like the photo of Notting Hill Carnival. Stan Dickinson also mentioned the influences on us.

I agree with MattJames who mentioned that selfies posted by teenagers are a document. A lot of my friends post various selfies, including myself when I run in races, in order to show their friend what they are doing – they want to document the moment, make it real. I hate photos of myself generally but will post them of myself after running a race – to prove I was there.

Time is an interesting one. The way we have taken photographs has changed and many now will grow up without even seeing many prints possibly. Does that mean it is not a document, if there is no physical print? That is another question I was thinking of at the start. We are able to find out a lot about historical events through photographs, but I also don’t think time is important when considering if a photo is a document. I believe as soon as the shutter is pressed, a document is created.

The Berger book looks good, but not so easily available where I am in Sabah, they only have used copies on Amazon which is not so easy. I may well find a random copy somewhere……The bookshop in Kuala Lumpur couldn’t get it as far as I know from my friend. Thankfully by the magic of Kindle, random book buying over the last few years and getting some ordered in KL I do have a fairly good collection….

Exercise: Transparent pictures


Read the first 3 sections of the essay “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kendall L Walton. Outline your views about Walton’s idea of photographic transparency. 


The article starts off with opposing views of photography – one from Andre Bazin which says photography represents reality, and one from Edward Steichen who says that all images are fake. I think it depends how the images are set up and taken to an extent. He goes on to say that photos of crime scenes are seen as more concrete evidence than paintings would be. There seems to be more emotion evokes from photos. Today there were lots of images online of flight MH17, and I noticed most of them are either taken from angles that do not show any parts of dead bodies, or the bodies are blanked out. In some cases, almost half the photo has been blurred so we cannot see the full horror of the incident. Most of the ones on UK news sites had been censored, but the Russian and Australian ones have not. Some showing just hands or arms are still full images, but all the ones with bodies have been blurred or modified in some way. Compare this to the images we looked at of the Opium wars and Crimean wars when researching the last topic, I find it interesting that now images are seen more widely, we feel the need to censor them. I found myself searching more to see the full images as I am more curious about it. 


Page 3 gave us 2 war images, one a painting and one a photography, and I have to say I felt more emotion looking at the photograph. I can distance myself from the painting more as it is less ‘real,’ and could be a made up scene. But how does this compare with photographers who make up scenes, which are totally fictional, like Gregory Crewdson’s film sets and Cindy Sherman becoming a character. How ‘real’ are those. We also need, as the author goes on to say, to be aware of the photographers attitudes, interests and prejudices as these can influence what they choose to shoot. This could totally change our view of a situation. What has been photographed and what has been left out. Would we see something totally different if the photo was slightly to the left or right? Have they not shown the rubbish? We have, I am sure, all experimented with perspective at some point. making a small beach appear big, or missing out the fact there is a rubbish dump at one end of it. In China, we experimented and Chinese and Western students got set a task where we had to photograph something the other students would not photograph, then show them and see if we were right. I took an image of a pig’s head in the market. All the Chinese students commented that the market was so common they would probably not take a similar image. In turn, they shot scenes we may never have thought interesting enough to shoot! There is also the issue that photographs can be reaslitic or we may choose to blur something which can make it less so. 


Walton talks about photography being an aid to vision. I think it can be useful to show us things we might never see, other countries for example. It can be how we find out more about the world we live in, and it enables us to continue to see loved ones after they have departed. Now, we can continue to see them as people seem to have more images digitally these days, and people keep facebook pages to remember loved ones for example. He argues that paintings are just a representation of someone rather than the real thing. But surely photos are too – they show a moment that will never occur again. There is also discussion about distinguishing fiction from reality – the Loch Ness monster is given as an example. The  more I think photos are real, the more photos I see that clearly are not and I start to doubt the medium as the truth!

Project: What makes a document?


This project was to research certain parts of the history of documentary. I was fascinated by some of the things I found and enjoyed looking them up.


John Grierson 1898-1972 is said to be the first person to use the term ‘documentary’ within visual media. Known for making factual films. The format of documentaries has changed but he taught many about the craft. He was responsible for several documentaries and there is a trust which promotes it still in his name. He was not entirely happy with the term as he felt it was an evolving concept. (Fox, J. http://www.griersontrust.org/assets/files/articles/john-grierson-jo-fox.pdf)

Robert Flaherty – founder of Documentary – his film Moana was described as a documentary by Grierson. 


He had previously made a film called Nanook of the North about Inuit life, in 1922. Moana 1926 documented daily life of people in Samoa preparing rituals for a ceremony. The film did not do well despite the fame it now seems to have as the birth of the documentary. 


Mission Heliographique – 5 photographers given the task of surveying architecture in the country. They were given a list of buildings to document and sent off. The project never really took off, negatives locked away. The images that we are able to see online are very clear images depicting the buildings. A few are a little unclear and almost look detached, such as Henri Le Secq’s image of a statue taken in 1852 – Large Figures on the North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, 1852



Roger Fenton is well known for documenting the battlefields of the Crimean War. The images at first glance seem to be mostly wide angle shots of the area where the war was, one showing cannonballs left over, some showing the landscape of the battlefield and some the cemetarys. In these images, any people are very small and superfluous. There are depictions of the camps the soldiers were living in. There is then a series of quite formal portraits, of groups of soldiers or soldiers on or with their horses. The facial expressions are quite neutral, and not much emotion is given away. 


Felice Beato travelled with the British Army and took images of the second opium war in China. One in particular shows a lot of corpses on the Chinese side, almost in a very matter-of-fact way. There are also images of temples and famous Chinese buildings, mainly with no people, looking very plain and stark. They look very different to how I remember them, full of crowds of people. This is a very different view of China. 


The USGS surveys show landscapes and pictures of buildings in order to document different areas. William Henry Jackson shot lots of images of Yellowstone National Park, and Timothy O’Sullivan went to many areas including Nevada. The images are black and white, again very matter of fact portrayals of what they could see. They are mainly landscapes – people who do appear seem to just be there, not posed. 

Overall, I am getting to know even more about this genre. I studied it before but think that this opportunity to do it again will give me a new perspective. 


Assignment 1 Planning


Before looking at the assignment, we were advised to read ‘The Photographic Brief’ in Short, M. (2011) Creative photography: context and narrative. This was an interesting insight into different kinds of briefs and starts with a quote mentioning that we need to have an affinity to what we are photographing. There is advice for responding to a student brief, which I will follow as I start to brainstorm my thoughts. We also need to clarify our learning aims and have a personal connection to the subject. The brief asks us to produce a small photo essay of 10 images that demonstrates our engagement with the lives, experiences and histories of my local community and its people. I need to decide on a single theme, topic or activity. 

My initial thoughts are looking at outdoor activities where I live as that is the main way I interact with those in my neighbourhood,  I rarely visit the restaurants and shops. I go to the beach a lot and am wondering if I should do something around that. I hardly speak to anyone living here, so this is going to be a challenge! I need to find out more about what is going on here. 

Project: Defining Documentary


We had to listen to Miranda Gavin giving a talk about documentary photography and write a 200 word reflective response of our reaction.

Gavin raises a valid point right at the start when she questions what the definitions around documentary and similar photography mean and do they mean the same now? The changes she mentions are about technology are undeniable. The internet itself meant images were more widely available quicker even when I was studying this in 2006, when I  investigated citizen journalism and coverage of the London bombing. Now, social networking sites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have evolved even more, and are regularly used to give people news as events happen. Smartphones too have meant that we are seldom without internet access (unless you live in Sabah as I do) and so we are up to date with events. We also seem to be using sites like Instagram to document our lives, I have seen my friends posting their lives there, their day at school, sunsets and other events that could be seen as quite mundane. Seeing the photos means we can still be a part of their lives and keep in touch. In general, technology has made it so much easier to take and upload photos to the internet wherever we are.

It does seem that more women are studying now, the first courses I did had slightly more women than men. My masters had more men on the Chinese end but the following year when there were more foreign students this changed. Women may cover topics that men may not, for example following female communities in Muslim countries is a lot more accessible for females. There definitely seems to be a need to find new ways to cover events and stories, whilst also trying to think of new topics.

I have listened to many podcasts where fine art photographers discuss the issues of colour management. I have never been particularly fussy about it but having seen some of their images I understand why they might worry. I feel that documentary photography is more about portraying a story and that while colour is important, there are times it needs to be left to an editor. After all, we have no control now over how images will be consumed – of course colour may also vary online depending on how we view the image – what we view it on, the amount of backlighting and the lighting in the surrounding area for example.


Gavin talked about the blurred boundaries of fine art versus creative versus documentary, I don’t think this has ever been really clear cut and most work crosses more than one boundary. There are features that make work more one genre but I believe a photo can show a lot more. Of course perceptions are all important, as she mentions.