Research Task: Challenging Boundaries

1. How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: http://vimeo.com/76940827

2. What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?

3. If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

1. How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?
Documentary photography definition according to the TATE:

“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”

This is an interesting question and one I’ll probably spend a lot of time reflecting on as I study and practice photography. My first reaction to it was, so what if it’s Art or Documentary-putting a label on it doesn’t take away how it affects me. According to Paul Seawright, artistic practice allows him to find layers in the meaning of photographs, and in documentary and photo-journalism:

‘how you consume a journalistic image is very quick, you open up a newspaper you look at that image, it has a scream mode and has to communicate meaning to you very, very quickly because you turn the page pretty fast, and you’re unlikely to return to the image’.

His photos are intended to make you think and reflect (a bit longer), to uncover their layers of meaning.

In Graham Clarke’s ‘The Photograph’ he breaks down the meaning of ‘Document’ to mean ‘evidence…a truthful account’ and goes on to say,

‘equally, documentary photography shows the camera at its most potent and radical. The very subject matter is an index of the contentious and problematic as well as of emotional and harrowing experiences: poverty, social and political injustice, war, crime, deprivation, disaster, and suffering are all difficult areas to photograph and all potentially problematic in the way the photographer will approach their meanings in terms of his or her own assumptions. The documentary photograph is equally one of the most intimate forms of photographic practice and, in turn, one that explicitly associates itself with public space. It assumes a bond between reader and subject, buoyed up by an assumed mandate not just to record, but to expose: the camera with a conscience’.

As I unpack Paul Seawright’s approach I begin to see a boundary between his search for meaning and his response to the sectarian murders. Showing bodies is too blunt an instrument for him, he wants people to fill the gaps between his photographs and what’s written beneath each photograph (excerpts from news reports).
As regards it being Art, well, the images have been hung in a gallery and have been consumed that way. Going into a gallery often creates an unwritten pact that you reflect on the images and give them some form of artistic respect, while consuming the images in a newspaper or online is a different delivery mechanism- it’s transient.

As I’m Irish and grew up during the troubles in Northern Ireland, and even though they were up north and far from my safe life in Dublin, reporting was ever-present and cast a long shadow touching many aspects of Irish society. Looking at the series, ‘Sectarian Murders’ I found myself reflecting on the horrors that happened. A lot. I probably heard about the death of the 14-year-old boy, anorak pulled over his head and shot at point-blank range, back when, and it was most likely just another horror story, and yes I was most probably immune to the shocks that seemed to be ubiquitous in the news and media. But Seawright’s photos slow me down, make me reflect and think about the event, they are of nondescript places, places people mostly avoid, and that together with the titles (extracts from news stories) force me to fill in the gaps, to think and reflect, and in this case make me feel somewhat uneasy.

What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
It’s interesting to hear Paul Seawright talk about his work and how he translates his ideas into a body of work, into series of photographs. For him, his work is ‘always a response to something else that’s a catalyst to the work that’s made’.

He talks about ‘typical’ documentary photographs and uses an example of Clive Limpkin’s book ‘The Battle of the Bogside’ and how he thought it was about one day, one riot, but was actually images taken over a period of time and covers multiple riots. He goes on to discuss the notion of images being historical documents and sources of truth, saying:

‘it’s often presented to people as evidential as a way of saying, look, here’s something that happened. So, therefore, this is truth, this is how you should understand that and it’s kind of presented oftentimes in this kind of journalistic context in that way.’

However, he sees this as problematic:

it’s still typical in journalistic photographs of conflict and riots and these kinds of situations, it’s centred on children. And I looked recently at a terrible book about the paceline in Northern Ireland, and I think they were 42 photographs in the book, and of those 42 photographs, 27 of them either had elderly people or children, because it kind of over emphasises that and simplifies, of course, that idea if you put children in a kind of a conflict situation it’s a very emotive way to talk about what’s going on, but actually I think it’s a terrible 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’.

His work seems to be about meaning and communicating the layers of meaning in any situation, pulling the viewer in to reflect, he goes on to say:

‘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 another kind – layers of meaning within it’…..and the way the work functions really is that there’s a triangulation of the image- its the text, and the third element is when you put those things together the space between the text and the image is where you imagine the violence. And I think that’s much more powerful than the kind of immediate closure you get from the photograph of the crime scene with the body.’

I find myself agreeing with Seawright that the way we consume photographs, the way photographs are taken and presented is somewhat reductive. One way is an expression of personal meaning, while the other is ‘telling it as it is’ albeit within a journalistic code (or not). For me, it’s two totally different ways of communicating with the image being the common denominator. I also feel that if you don’t know how to read a photograph, then Seawright’s images or layers of meaning might pass you by, so sometimes photographs need to be blunt instruments.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?
I think so- yes- but caveat that with -it depends.
If we take Art Photography as a medium for personal creative expression we also need to consider the objectivity v subjectivity arguments. Although documentary photography aspires to be objective, and journalistic codes of practice aside, we all carry with us our world view, culture, and pressures (meet a deadline, get ‘that’ picture) so most, if not all, documentary photography is somewhat subjective. An artist might use documentary photographs as part of his expression but it’s coming from a different place, it’s an attempt to find meaning rather than an objective reporting of reality, for the record. Paul Seawright talks about his work sometimes being criticised for being too vague or open to interpretation, and offers us the insight that if its too direct, too reductive, it becomes journalistic.
It seems that the idea of photography being an accurate representation of the truth or an event is tricky at the best of times. As a medium, it’s ubiquitous and used in different contexts and open to manipulation. The fact that Paul Seawright is a known artist / photographer, has a body of work, a reputation, and presents his work as ‘Art’ does demand that we consider it differently. As I write these words there is a book of photographs on my table by George Rodger, a body of work spanning many conflicts and historical events, his work has also been hung in galleries-is that now art? probably not, as their origin came from a different place-a recording of events, but hanging them in a gallery forces us to consider them differently and potentially change their meaning.

Clarke, Graham, 1997, The Photograph, Oxford University Press,New York.
Things Left Unsaid – Paul Seawright in conversation with Donovan Wylie (https://vimeo.com/134925293-accessed 10/08/2021)