Some musings and personal reflections!
Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?
There is a lot to consider in the questions posed above and from my perspective there isn’t a simple binary yes no answer. In particular the time and context of for example of Hines work have to be taken into consideration in any analysis of their content, focus or intention. These questions also raise a number of sociological issues that I feel are inseparable in any critique.
To consider context with regard to Lewis Hine’s work though, it is really important to note that when Hine was producing his images the photograph was far less ubiquitous than it is now. Hine’s motives I believe were genuinely honourable , indeed Hine had studied Social Science and Ethics and begun teaching in New York City before he became known as a photographer. He encouraged his students to use photography as an investigative tool. His photographic practice as far as I can see was rooted in his interest in social science and its links to tackling poverty.
‘Social Documentary photography was still in its infancy early in the 20th century, yet Hine gave it canonical form”
Goldberg (quoted in Koetzle 2011)
Whilst Rosler’s commentary specifically challenges Hine, his contemporaries and those that followed, such as Winogrand, Freidland and Arbus, I feel there is a context gap in some of her assertions. She poses a very functionalist (in the sense of Durkheim’s functionalist theory) narrative about the relationship between rich and poor and suggests strongly that the photographs of Hine made a direct contributions to what Durkhiem would have seen as shared societal norms, i.e. that there is an inevitable hierarchy and social stratification in society . If Hine’s images spurred the wealthy to give money, this still does not mean that Hine was exploitative. Of course that does not mean though that other photographers were not exploitative and there is a whole strand of thought about whether the transition from photography as a tool (as Hine would have seen it) to the far more art orientated work of Arbus, Rosler’s notion of the photographer as exploiting subject aor contributing to social norms may be more apposite.
Pictures do have impact impact though irrespective of the photographers motivations and can support change, I have no doubt about this although impact and change are not the same thing. I will pick this them up later.
Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? 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.
The theme of war photography and its impact is a huge area of debate. There are widely differing approaches to war photography ranging from the famous photographs of Robert Capa, which present a very ‘in situ’ view, almost an early version of embedded journalism, to the stark and at times horrific work of photographers such as James Hatchway and Susan Meiselas’s whose work can be horrifically graphic to the aftermath images of Paul Seawright and Chloe Dewe Matthews. The latter two photographers taking a very different and oblique take on war imagery and seeking to present a more reflective and perhaps cerebral (in that the view has to work differently to interpret the image) approach to what are still horrific themes.
Yes some of this works shock, some is much more subtle and all has an impact of some sort on the view. I do subscribe to Sontag’s notion of compassion fatigue and believe this is not only about images in the news media but also a numbing of the sense by progressively more graphic drama and fiction presentations on the television and in cinema.
Sontag’s critique of Arbus for example does suggest that to shock photographs have to be novel, contrasting Mc Cullen’s images of starving Biafrans with the work of Bischof two decades earlier she suggests that the impact has been lost as consumers of images become more accustomed to seeing and ultimately ignoring what had once been shocking. The notion that photograph can represent a real truth but this truth is open to debate. As more images of the same (what ver the subject might be) are shared what started as revealing truth becomes common place, even banal.
That said even in the second decade o the 21st century images of horror still command power. The recent photographs of Aylan Kurdi the syrian toddle drowned in an attempt to each Europe created an understandable hiatus with a number of news outlets deciding the image was too upsetting to publish. This position appears to challenge the notion of compassion fatigue, there are still things that shock the public and lead to an outcry. Indeed the reaction to this desperately sad image suggest some hope for humanity!!
Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?
Solomon-Godau makes the the very valid summarising point in her binary analysis, suggesting that we see the truth as being something derived from the insider view point and objectivity being the domain of the outsider.
There is a real tension in this point that I can only resolve by reflecting on the fact that insider and outsider perspectives might tell us something different, but equally valid t about the same situation.
t the heart of documentary photography there seems to be a What we see and interpret does of course depend on the nature of the project and both insider and outsider perspectives will bring advantages and disadvantages. The key for me however is that the perspectives will be different and may contain their own truths. I am reminded of debates in anthropology about the varying degrees of validity between external observation and and participant observation. I think there sea some real parallels to the debate about documentary photography. Both viewpoints have merits and both have weakness, objectivity emerges from a syntheses and analyses of all perspectives and even then there will still be gaps in understanding. Bias added by the researcher (or photographer) and bias created by the reader (viewer) add to the ultimately subjective nature of a research position or an image. At the heart documentary photography there seems to be dilemma regarding truth that is is ultimately reductive and fruitless. Far more important is that the viewer needs to be aware of the perspective from which images were made and use this to moderate what is seen and ultimately communicated by an image.
I suspect that all of the above themes will be revisited throughout this course!!!
Cotton, C (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames and Hudson, London
Haralambos, M. (1980) Sociology-Themes and Perspectives, University Press, London
Harrison, J. (2010) A Lens on History-Photographer Susan Meiselas’s quest to understand via images, Harvard Magazine,-found at: http://www.harvard magazine.com/2010/11/a-lens-on-history (Accessed April 2016)
Koetzle, H-M. (2011) Photographers A-Z , Taschen, Gmbh
Natchway, J. (1989) The Deeds of War, Thames and hudson, London
Also the following web resources:
http://www.paulseawright.com/hidden/ (Accessed April 2016)
http://www.chloedewemathews.com/shot-at-dawn/ (Accessed April 2016)