Exercise 5: Critical Analysis
Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, L. (ed.) (2015) Photography : a critical introduction. (Fifth edition.) London, [England] ; New York, New York: Routledge. pp.92–95. At: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1968918
Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?
Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.
The ecosystem for a photograph has become much more complex and the role of a photograph is changing and open to sophisticated methods of not only manipulation, but creation also.
Context and source are still key.
The way we create and consume photographs is changing and evolving. Successful new technologies follow a familiar path, from their introduction and mimicking what exists before evolving to something new and eventually mass adaption-for example, first mobile phones mimicked the landline phones in our homes, helping us communicate while on the go, before evolving into powerful communication devices and digital helpers. Regarding photography and the creation of images, Fred Richtin observes ‘digital media, including their visual aspects, will eventually involve a more flexible, integrative, ‘hyperphotography’ that takes advantage of the many potentials of digital platforms, including links, layers, hybridization, synchronicity, nonlinearity, nonlocality, malleability, and the multivocal. The results may at first resemble gimmickry, but eventually, they will be transformative.’
It is this transformation that will impact how we see photography as truth. Some of the arguments about these perceptions are as follows:
Images have been manipulated since the beginning of photography, what’s happening now is nothing new.
Images are created from scratch, montaged, manipulated, figures removed, added so this asks the question -If a photograph is not of something already existing in the world, how can we regard it as an accurate record of how things are? Does the manipulation or even the creation of images on a computer affect its indexicality?
According to Jean Baudrillard the nature of the real and authentic is different now, a new type of reality is constructed and our translation of the world is explained and presented by technologies that are part of our reality. According to Wells,
‘it is clear that a complex of technical, political, social and cultural changes has transformed not just photography, but the whole of visual culture. For example, David Campany points out that ‘almost a third of all news “photographs” are frame grabs from video or digital sources’ and comments that: ‘The deﬁnition of a medium, particularly photography, is not autonomous or self-governing, but heteronymous, dependent on other media. It derives less from what it is technologically than what it is culturally. Photography is what we do with it. And what we do with it depends on what we do with other image technologies. ‘ (wells 2015:94)
Photographs are indexical signs and have ‘relationship is that it is the result of an event in the world, evidence of the passing of a moment of time that once was and is no more, which left a kind of trace of the event on the photograph. It is this trace which has been considered to give photographs their special relationship to the real.’ (Wills 2015: 93) This is what makes them unique.
This begs the question of whether the lexicon of indexicality will have to change to reflect this new reality.
It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography. Any radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph. Not only do we know that individual photographs could have been manipulated, but our reception and understanding of the world of signs may have been transformed.
The old ecosystem of photography has / is dying out and being replaced by a new and more complex one. Economically hard-pressed media outlets are using output from citizen journalists and following social media to understand how a story is unfolding thus shaping their version of it. Stories are shaped by people sharing them and the imagery is often provided by people who have little or no training or professional code to follow and often bypassing editorial input. This has given rise to polarised reporting-for example, Fox News v CNN and you believe what you see based on your political belief.
What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up?
What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?
‘How can you care about anything when you know every goddam thing? I’m getting over one cop shooting, and then another one happens. I’m crying about Paris, and then Brussels happens. I can’t keep track of all this shit. So you just give the fuck up. That’s the hallmark of your generation, and that’s fucked up because your generation lives in the most difficult time in human history. This is the age of spin. The age where nobody knows what the fuck they’re even looking at.’ Luc Boltanski
Before part one, I would have considered documentary photography as an in-depth look (or take) on a specific topic-people, places, historic events; an investigation to raise awareness or shed light on something of interest. I would have associated objectivity and trust in what I was seeing as given but would have been aware of the slant the source might have on it-i.e. the political leanings of the publication. I would have assumed some form of ethical code of practice at play.
After part one I have begun to question and think more about what I’m looking at and whether it’s truly objective or indeed, can ever be.
Before I sum it up, I would like to first dig into the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography. Documentary, reportage, photojournalism all over-lap to some degree, but can be defined as follows:
Documentary:’Documentary photography is a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage’ (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/documentary-photography. Accessed 28/08/2021)
Reportage: ‘the reporting of news by the press and the broadcasting media’
‘the act or process of reporting news or writing intended to give an account of observed or documented events’ (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reportage accessed 28/08/2021)
Photojournalism:’Photojournalism is a form of journalism which tells a news story through powerful photography which traditionally are black and white images’ (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/photojournalism accessed 28/08/2021).
Art photography concerns itself with personal meaning, interpretation, and creative expression.
After reading part one and doing the projects, I find myself thinking more about the ecosystem that photographs exist in and a quote from Frederick Douglas ‘Pictures like songs, should be left to make their own way in the world. All they can reasonably ask of us is that we place them on a wall, in the best light, and for the rest allow them to speak for themselves’.
Photographs do tend to make their way in the world but don’t always get the chance to speak for themselves, and maybe we demand too much of a photograph. Let me try to explain:
Photographs as truth
Photographs represent a fraction of a second of time and what is within the frame cannot tell us what came before or after. It is also from the vantage point of the photographer, whether taken as a split-second reaction to an event, carefully composed or within journalistic / ethical guidelines, there is always an element of subjectivity. Theorists argue that photographs can never represent the truth or communicate the full picture (sorry for the pun)-Susan Sonntag opined that photographs can never give ‘political or political knowledge’. Yet we use photographs as evidence in trials, to record crime scenes, reference points for history (e.g. photos of concentration camps to debunk deniers and their theories) and as an industry, it is even protected by the constitution of the United States.
So, despite what theorists argue about ‘truth’, ‘subjectivity’ and the limitations of photographs, for me, it is still a powerful medium as a reference point, an educator, and in most cases, a witness and record to an event. What’s missing for sure is ‘context’, but it’s our responsibility (or choice) to contextualise a given situation and make our minds up accordingly.
In the book,’Decolinising the Camera- Photography in Racial Time’, Mark Sealy talks about the use of George Rodger’s photographs of Belsen in Life magazine’s August 1945 edition and specifically one photograph of a boy walking along a path, seemingly alone, lined with dead bodies. In relation to people in other photos, the boy looks healthy and his cultural identity was not mentioned in the article-subsequent reproductions of the photo elsewhere claimed he was German and thus the photo takes on a very different meaning as it could be interpreted as German indifference to the mass killings. The boy was in fact Dutch and Jewish. The photo in Life was also cropped and this altered its meaning significantly, as the boy is front and centre while the original uses the lines of dead bodies to the right of the frame to guide the viewer into the shot.
Whether it’s documentary, photo-journalism, reportage, one has to also consider the eco-system within which a photograph exists. If a photographer works for one of the wire services or agencies, he will adhere to their professional and ethical code, his photographers will be sorted and edited by an editor before going out ‘on the wire’ and may also be further edited by the media outlet that subscribes to the agency. Additionally, some media outlets pursue or adhere to a specific political agenda-left, right, centre leaning, and tailor their news stories accordingly. Photographs are open to misrepresentation and manipulation as much as any form of media.
A relatively new and evolving part of the ecosystem is social media. Hailed by some as the ‘democratisation of photography / media’-where citizens have more access to stories and powerful broadcasting platforms to share them-opens up issues of abuse and lack of context to stories and photographic content. Stories often ignored by mainstream media, and helped by photographs (or videos) from citizen journalists can find a voice and exposure, just as far-right hate messages can reach a wider audience. Hard-pressed media outlets are relying on this form of content more and more where at its best can expose and turn a spotlight on police brutality (xxx) and at its worst propagate hateful and misleading messages as exemplified by the Trump administration post-election defeat.
Making sense of art photography, photojournalism, reportage and doumentary
So I now find myself thinking about, and looking at photographs with a hint of suspicion; their context, source, origin, layers of meaning.
I am convinced that the work of photo-journalists covering conflict and political/social strife, wherever it may be, is vital as a witness to events, and even if their photographs don’t make it to the main page of the New York Times or the Telegraph, the fact that they exist gives me hope that the truth will out or at some future date bear testimony to events. I am also more sensitive to the sanitisd views of events we get. In the book ‘Conversations on Conflict Photography’ by Lauren Walsh, there are two photographs that demonstrate the complexity of using photographs-they are of the runner who was injured in the blast at the Boston marathon-one is cropped and was used by many media outlets, the other was deemed too horrific to be published-looking at them I’m not sure-one looks like a guy in a wheelchair who looks poorly, the other hit me with force and brought home to me the horror of the blast- I consumed that story at the time but never really grasped the horror of it.
Paul Seawright, when talking about his work, addresses the differences between art phorgraphy and mainstream reportage and photojournalism. He uses the example about a book of documentary photographs that looked at the Northern Ireland peace timeline. It contains 42 photographs, 27 of which are of elderly and young children, for him this is ‘… a terribly reductive way of dealing with reporting complexities of conflict, you never get to the complexities with that kind of representation of conflict and really my work, from the very beginning has been a response to that, and really how the construction of a representation around these kind of issues, is something that is, is almost always suspect’. (Paul Seawright lecture 2010 JOELEE http://joelee.ie/portfolio/paul-seawright-voice-our-concern-artists-lecture-2010/ : accessed :5/08/2021) For him, there is always a trigger or catylst that inspire or motivate him to tackle a specific subject, to elicit personal meaning, and communicate that. He goes on to explain the difference between what he does-art-and photojournalism ‘that’s, that’s what journalism has to do, you know the way you consume a journalistic image is very quickly, you open up a newspaper you look at that image, it has to scream more and has meaning to you very, very quickly, because you turn the page pretty fast, and you’re unlikely to return to the image. The paper ends up in the recycling probably half an hour after you’ve read it. It means that it has to have an obviousness , and it has to be immediate. So I think with our practice and if you’re using photography in our practice, particularly, you’ve got to make work that I suppose it stands up to more scrutiny that bears being returned to more than once that doesn’t offer up some meaning to obviously that maybe has a literal meaning, but has other kind of layers of meaning within it’ (Paul Seawright lecture 2010 JOELEE http://joelee.ie/portfolio/paul-seawright-voice-our-concern-artists-lecture-2010/ : accessed :5/08/2021) . So for Seawright, photojournalism is immediate, in your face, while documentary art is more considered, personal, and reveals its essence within layers of meaning.
At this point in photography art and similar photojournalism/reportage/documentary are different approaches to similar subject matter with personal meaning and expression the obvious differentiation between the lot.
Bull, Stephen, 2010, Photography, Oxon, Routledge
Sealy, Mark, 2019, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, London, Lawrence & Wishart
Walsh, Lauren, 2019, Conversations on Conflict Photgraphy,Great Britain,Bloomsbury Visual Art
Wells, Liz, 2015 Photography: a Critical Introduction : A Critical Introduction, edited by Liz Wells, Taylor & Francis Group,
DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/documentary-photography Accessed 28/08/2021
PHOTO JOURNALISM, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/photojournalism accessed 28/08/2021
Paul Seawright lecture, 2010 JOELEE http://joelee.ie/portfolio/paul-seawright-voice-our-concern-artists-lecture-2010/ : accessed :5/08/2021