The Real and the Digital-Liz Wells (2009)- Some thoughts and wider reflections

Initially I read this short excerpt from Liz Wells Book: Photography: A critical Introduction and felt it was a useful brief commentary on the changing nature of how images are made and interpreted.

However,  having re read it a couple of times I think it is saying something much more profound. The question does digital technology change  how we see photography as truth really only scratches the surface of the point I think she is making.

Wells starts by succinctly suggesting that with advances in technology,  image making has been transformed and not just the technological capacity to create new ways of making images but also transformed  photographic practice in a range of spheres such as commercial and art image making. This raises key questions though about the nature of the photographic image and how it is perceived, in particular the long established link, or at least the perceived link between an image and something real. The notion of a photograph being a momentary slice in time , related to a real event, place or thing. She rightly points out  that there is nothing new in photographs being manipulated. Any survey of the history of photography will reveal examples of manipulation from frivolous  fakery to down right deception .

It is however photography’s link to notions of the ‘real’ and the ‘truth’ that are in question in this piece of writing I think. Rightly or wrongly documentary photography and photo journalism have been linked to  revealing a truth, revealing something that might otherwise have remain hidden.  I touched upon this in my blog entry here.

Citing Barthes (1980) and his notion that a photograph contains or retains some sense or ‘trace’ of something real, it is this tennis link from a the flat and lifeless two dimensional images hat is a photograph to some thing that once existed, that anchors the idea of photograph to some notion of truth. This idea is set against notions that painting and other creative media are for more ,inked to the whim and skill of the artist than they are to the real or concrete. Well’s uses this point to make the relationship between a photograph and something real. But as stated I think there is a deeper point being made. I remember vividly the opening comments in Camera Lucida and Barthes (1980) description and reflections upon seeing an early photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother and looking at the image and thinking:

‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the emperor’

To Barthes the photograph reveals something much larger that that which is contained within the frame. Wells suggests that our very understanding of the world around us is shaped by the meanings we glean from images. Citing Pierce , the american semioticians notion of indexical signs, Wells I think is suggesting that image manipulations has wider implications than just fakery.

I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of semiotics and I am reading about Pierce and signs at present. I am familiar with the social psychologist George Herbert Mead a contemporary of Pierce and the founder of the symbolic interactionist movement in social science. Mead suggested that we make sense of who we are and the world around us through symbols, the most powerful of which is language. Language and visual signs and symbols are linked and after language signs are a very powerful mechanism for making sense of the world. Wells hints at this in her reference to Baudrillard’s assertion that the Gulf War never happened, what really happened was a series of political, technological and human actions. In this stamen he is perhaps redesign the notion of war as a separate set of references points, Wells for me makes the most important point in the excerpt in that it suggests to me that technology and the use of other visual media through advances in technology have the potential to reshape who we perceive events and make sense of the world around us.

So what does all this mean? Well the photographs relations with truth, whether real or not is a powerful tool in shaping meaning. Advances in technology mean that how we understand the world is potentially manipulated at multiple levels.

I am conscious this is a somewhat tenuous reflection on the article but it has really fired up my thinking about how meaning is created in visual media and how through tech biology the potential for things to be manipulated is significant. Also there is a blurring of what once we might have seen as different approaches into a wider and more difficult to define notion of visual culture.

I really need to get to grips with semiotics, this is intellectually very exciting though!


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, Vintage , London

Meade, G.H. (1934)  Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Wells, E. (2009)Photography: A critical Introduction Routledge, Abingdon



Exercise (4) The Manipulated Image

Instead of using double exposures or printing from double negatives we now have the technology available to us to make these changes in post-production, allowing for quite astonishing results.

Use digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be



I have to confess to finding this a particularly difficult exercise. In the context of the course I can see the value in its intention but I none the less Ifound it challenging.

Creating a manipulated image that ‘ could never actually be’  raises all sorts of ethical as well as creative questions and although Boothroyd (2015) suggests that:

‘….the use of digital manipulation doesn’t necessarily equate to a lie’

I none the less wonder where the boundaries of what is acceptable lies. I have already commented in two previous Context and Narrative blog posts that currently this is a very live debate given the controversy that photo journalist Steve McCurry finds hime self in regarding the alleged digital manipulation of some of his work. I

That saidI have had a go at the exercise within the time I have available but I recognise that my image is somewhat rudimentary as well as cliched! That said I did manage something!

To a large extent it was n’t ant sense of ethics that hindered me in this exercise. I found this hard because I have very limited Photoshop skills. I do use Photoshop, but my work never involves the full power of the programme. As a predominantly film based photographer I do genuinely attempt to create my images in the camera, I know many photographers will say this , but with my Hasselblad and Pentax medium format  cameras their controls are pretty basic by the standards of modern digital photographic equipment. Once I have made an image on film  I then develop it  and in most cases the scan my negatives or positives. The scanning process produces some artefacts and is still not quite a good as wet printing, so I use some minor correction in Lightroom to finish my work.

Dust is the enemy of the film scanner and in spite of canned air, blower brushes and a very clean scanner I still get dust on my scans. Although some of this can be removed with software I don’t like the effect this has so I with “ICE’ switched off I do all my dust removal using the cloning tool in photoshop. That is my main experience with that programme

So what did I do?

Well I pushed my boundaries and I selected something of a cliche in the approach I took to create my ‘hoax’ image. Using a well trodden path I produced I very rudimentary flying saucer image. The actual process to make the images went as follows:

Selection of a base image from my own catalogue of work- I chose a simple black and white image, I then searched and found a stock photo of an alien craft ( used in a Lollywood film). Next I used the lassoo tool to delineate and remove the stock image from its background, I feathered the edge a little to remove the harsh edge. I then created a version in a separate layer. This was then converted to mono and I made some highlight and shadow adjustments in an attempt to match the tones in the base image. In reality I just made it ‘less bad!’ I then combined to two to make the image below. Not quite front page quality but I feel it meets the brief, all be it in a very basically and i’m not expecting a call from the tabloids any time soon.

beach sally copy

What did I learn?

Well I pushed the boundaries if my Photoshop skills and I also gained some useful insight into what is involved in manipulating images beyond the sort of adjustment i make.

It also made me think hard  about Wendy McMurdos work. Although this work demonstrates the investigative nature , indeed the power of digitally manipulated images to reveal something we would not perhaps have noticed (I am referring to the intense concentration on the faces of children in her Young Musicians Series) , I am frankly struck by her patient expertise in the manipulation process its self!


Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Interview with Wendy Mc Murdo found at: (Accessed May 2016)

The manipulated image-some further thoughts


I was struck by Jones (2013) guardian article referenced in the coursework ‘manipulated image’ section. Whilst the photoshopped self of Tony Blair in front of an black smoke inferno, this photoshopped image by activist artists’ Kennardphillips has be around for a little while and one might even argue that its inclusion as part of the marketing materials for an Imperil War Museum exhibition i some ways neuters its political effect. What i mean is that when the provocative becomes culturally acceptable artwork, it does perhaps loose some of its political impact.

There are lots of questions I have about image manipulation and where the boundaries lie. As I write this short blog entry there is an ongoing on-line delete about photo journalist Steve Mc Curry’s alleged use of photoshop to manipulate some of his very iconic mages. On one side he appears to be being pilloried for questionable journalist ethics and a lack of truth in images that up until now have generally been regarded as exceptional records. On the other side he is being defended as having made the minimal corrections that ‘secure’ rather than change the truth.

I guess the notion of truth is at the heart of this debate and also for me the issue of whether when an image becomes a work of art is truth as important? I genuinely don’t have a clue about the answer to this question, but in seeking one I have spent some time looking at the work of Hannah Hoch the german artists who made many photomontage ( image manipulation in the pre photoshop days) Hoch used scissors and glue to create something new out of images, many for the purpose of challenging the Weimar Republics view of women in that society. Influenced by Dadaist’s her work i think is a valid today is it was nearly 100 years ago. I know I need to justify such as statement so as evidence i offer the image and commentary below:


I have read much on the internet about this work and there are a variety of interpretations of its intent. To me the most coherent descriptions hint at Hoch’s challenge to the fashion industry in the 1920’s and the uniformity it sought to to create in women. Uniformity can also implies compliance. Whilst the dresses on each of the three figures are very similar her stark montage of the faces faces literally show multiple facets and difference.

So what has this to do with the Blair photoshop image and the debate about whether McCurry did or did not use photoshop. I think for me it is bad to the idea of truth , but this has to link to the original intent of the photographer. Koch set out to make a political point, images are distorted to make a wider truth. I don’ want to get into the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war but the Kennardphilips image uses manipulate to make a wider political point, that subsequently has become and artistic stamen, to me the fact that it is at home on a gallery wall flutes the political message.

I need to reflect further on this idea and as I make the manipulated image for Exercise 5 of Part one I am struck by the idea that untruths may make more of statement than the truth actually does. There is something alarming but not all together unfamiliar about the point made by Jones (2013) in his Guardian article:

‘Art could not stop the war in Iraq. It can influence how that war is remembered.’

This is very true for a whole range of conflicts and artists and photographers body of works through history shape how the collective conscious remembers these conflicts irrespective of the truth or not in this images!


Jones, J, (2013) The Tony Blair ‘selfie’ Photo Op will have a place in history, Guardian Newspaper. Found at: (Accessed May 2016)

Zhang, M. (2016) More Photoshopped Photos Emerge in the Steve McCurry Scandal, PetaPixel found at: (Accessed May 2016)

Hannah Höch- German Photomontage artist. Found at: (Accessed May 2016)

The manipulated image- W. Eugene Smith, Albert Schweitzer and Life Magazine


I read with interest project 5 in the course materials that reflected upon image manipulation both past and present. I had been reading about and looking at the work of W.Eugene Smith when I came across the controversy that led him to resign as a photographer for the magazine ‘Life’. The story seemed to me to resonate with the themes being explored in this part of the course so I thought I would add some notes on the issue to my blog.

W. Eugene Smith is to me an iconic 20th century photographers who is one of the progenitors of the photo essays and to my eye a master of  work in low light. He produced a number of outstanding bodies of work ranging from his very visceral war photography while embedded with american troops fighting the japans in World War II, (during which time he was injured) to his classic photo  photo essays “Country Doctor” (1948) and “Nurse Midwife” (1951). His three year long study of Pittsburg (1955–1958) is an in depth study of the city and  record and his Jazz Loft Project (1957 to 1965) is an entrancing view of the Jazz set in New York City. His images of the Japans city of Minamata provide a record, indeed a whistleblowing exposure of the toxic poising of a generation.


It is his 1954  photo essay for Life magazine ‘Man of Mercy’, a study of the great Albert Schweitzer, that raises issues about truth and manipulation. Smith parted company with Life Magazine following a dispute about the image below.

W. Eugene Smith

© W. Eugene Smith

Smith manipulated this image by adding the silhouette of the saw and hand in the bottom right of the photograph. He felt the addition of these elements added to the ‘greater truth’ about Schweitzer and this justified the addition. Life’s policy forbad such an addition and Smith and the magazine parted company.

The ‘greater truth’ referred to by Smith was  the fact that Schweitzer had personally overseen the building of the hospital in which he worked. Smith obviously felt that the addition enhanced the image in the it added a key element to the narrative. It was however seen by Life’s editors as a fake image. 

I am genuinely torn by the rights and wrongs of Smith’s image manipulation and by modern standards of photoshopping this seems minor. But the truth is the image was faked, whatever the motive. It raises for me questions about where the boundaries lie in the truth of an image. When we enhance the colour, sharpen the foreground or darken the sky, are we not guilty of the same act as Smith? I suspect this is a theme to which I will return!


Cosgrove, B. (2014) Behind the Picture: Albert Schweitzer in Africa, found at: (Accessed May 2016)

Exercise (3): Sarah Pickering-Public Order


Copyright Sarah Pickering

Pickering’s  work in ‘Public Order’ raises questions about facades, what is real and what is not. I could also relate to the issues raised in the course materials about the impact this work has on the imaginations. If whole townscapes exist for th police to practice for riots and emergencies, what do we not know about. there are some profound questions about society, order and control. That said in Pickering interview referenced below, she describes the police being very open and transparent, o the point of being disappointed that she photographed the location empty and was less intreated in making images of the faux riots they were staging.

The initial image in the course materials did look like an early morning street scene or a long exposure image of a street (I have used this technique to make a street appear empty during the day). It is only on closer inspection that something doesn’t look quite right, in particular the fact that all of the windows were uniformly blank. There is also something of a film set look about the image and the second image showing the scene from the ear gives away that this is a facade. This too reminds me of a film set.

How do Pickering’s images make you feel?

At first look that have an authenticity about them but closer inspection reveals something  unsettling about them, particularly as i moved through the various empty and somewhat easy training ground scenes. The images raise questions about why we need such spaces and the fact that the police nee dot train for riot bad unrest. I did wonder how often the police use such a facility and what their expectations is of the frequency of its and civil unrest. Are the police continual un a state of readiness for such events. 

Is Public Order an effective use of documentary is it misleading?

The fact that I am thinking about civil disorder and the role of the police in society while looking at the images says something about the authenticity of the work as informative documentary photography. Although the images focus on a subject that has a degree of ‘fakes’ about it, the underlying theme to me is far from fake, indeed it is unsettling, as stated because it alerts the view about real police activity, which in term says something about the nature of society. In a time of relative calm, it raises the spectre of civil disorder and the police’s need to be prepared for it, in this sense the work shines a light on society, all be it from a somewhat oblique perspective.


Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Colberg, J. (2010) Review-Explosions, Fires and Public Order, Conscientious found at:

Sarah Pickering on Public Order & Explosion series: Excerpt- Found at:

Research Point-Sectarian Murder

Paul Seawright- Sectarian Murder


Copyright Paul Seawright

Seawright’s Sectarian Murder is for me the quintessential example of ‘Aftermath Photography’. It also has a biographical component in that the artist made a sequence of images at locations close to where he grew up as a child. The work was also influenced by a diary he kept which amongst other things recorded key news events in his youth. I was interested to read that Kelly(1996) suggests the work originally had no title and the current title was coined by reviewers and critics rather than Seawright himself.

Visiting the sites of murders or places where the bodies of the murdered catholics and protestant  were dumped Seawright uses a well lit, almost forensic approach to recording the location of the atrocity. There is almost a calm, even banal feel to the locations and the images that contrast with the parallel texts that sits with each image. The text, taken fro news reports of the time set out the nature of the atrocity. The effect is a stark and for me uncomfortable contrast between the benign landscape location and the nature of the text about the murder. Seawright creates a different way in which to look at historic killings, placing them to some extent in the present. I believe this approach makes a strong and powerful stomata about the troubles in Ulster from a unique and non-journalistic perspective.

Seawright has raised for me questions about the boundaries between art and documentary photography. The boundary is blurred and i think both art and documentary images can exists simultaneously.

In the short Imperial War Museum video clip referenced in the course matures, Seawright’s gives a brief compelling argument of the difference between editorial images and art images. suggesting that there is a fine balance to be achieved, but in essence art images are visually engaging but give their meaning up slowly. It is hard to say whether i agree or diaper with this perspective. In reality I am still on a steep learning curve and I need to learn more in order to formulate a personal view point. That said I do agree with his assertion that editorial images, whether for advertising or journalistic purposes need to give up their meaning up more quickly. Viewers can have short attention spans so the desired information to be transmitted needs to be obvious and indeed immediately visible.

Perhaps this helps understand his perspective on photography as art practice, in that an art image can make a journalistic or documentary point ( as I believe Sectarian Murder does) but this is achieved differently. Rather than being a passive recipient of information, the viewer is an active participant in creating meaning.

So this begs the question in the course materials:

‘If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning”

In response I might be over implying things but I think the meaning can remain the same and or a piece of art photography, depending on its context and narrative can also have  documentary meaning. What is perhaps different is how we arrived at the meaning, as Seawright suggests meaning is given up slowly and in some art images the meaning relies on the viewer doing some work in the interpretation.

To support this position I think the image below, by Alec Soth supports this view. Taken from his Songbook collection the image exists as a piece of art but also serves as a documentary image too.



Kelly, L. (1996) quoted in British Photography- The Hyman Collection Paul Seawright – Sectarian Murder. Found at: (Acessed May 2016)

Seawright, P. (1988) Sectarian Murder- found at: (Accessed May 2016)

Seawright, P. (2013) catalyst-Imperial War Museum found at: http:// (Accessed May 2016)

Soth, A, (2015) Songbook, Mack

Exercise-Find a street that particularly interests you

Inspite of what seemed like a period of really poor weather I traveled from my rule home to the local city and made a series of both colour and Black and white images. I was quite disciplined in the process and set my camera to monochrome to make the black and white images. I shot a sequence in black and white and then reported the activity with the camera back in colour mode. As some one who still predominately shoots film I am very familiar with the idea of shooting specifically in colour or in black and white and feel I d have a different mind set in each mode.  when shooting black and white I am looking much more at tone and when making colour images I do lok for relationships between colour and shape. 

This proved to be an interesting exercise and below I have picked out a few examples of  from both the black and white set and the colour set.

Looses monmono 2 18mm f4 1-4000 (1 of 1)

Exch 1906 mono 18mm f4 1-4000 (1 of 1)

Rough Sleeper mono 2 18mm f4 1-4000 (1 of 1)

Viking Norwich colour 27mm f3.2 1-4000 (1 of 1)

Div in mono 27mm 1-600 f2.8 iso 4000 (1 of 1)

Features of the Black and white set

  • Content, structure and composition stand out first
  • Black and white images ask an inherent question about time. I know i search images for indicators within the image that allow me to date it. The second image above perhaps illustrate this. it is clearly and old building, it is though the YMCA posters in the windows that denote that its is reality contemporary, this isn’t always possible and some recent black and white images can have a timeless feel
  • Signage also stands out and can date an image
  • I tend to hunt for the narrative or story almost immediately in a black and white image

Rough Sleeper colour  2 18mm f4 1-4000 (1 of 1)

Looses 27mm 1-600 f4.5 iso 4000 (1 of 1)

Roys colour 27mm 1-500 f6.4 iso 4000 (1 of 1)

Div colour 27mm 1-600 f2.8 iso 4000 (1 of 1)

out of time 3 colour 27mm 1-2600 f2.8 iso 4000 (1 of 1)

Features of the colour set

  • Composition is significantly influenced by the relationships between colours
  • The images are clearly contemporary
  • The dull weather is more obvious 

Learning points from the exercise

There is to me value in setting out to shoot in black and white rather than simply converting in post processing, this exercise affirmed that view. It was also iterating to reshoot a theme in short succession thinking separately about colour and black and white.

Thinking specifically about reportage approaches as opposed to documentary style, colour is perhaps more likely to create a sense of intimacy and connection between the view and the subject and scene and whist I have seen lost of black and white so called reportage approaches in fields such as wedding photography I am not convinced that this type of work is anything more than nostalgia.

Contact Sheets

Contacts Sheets-3 Contacts Sheets-1

Contacts Sheets-2Contacts Sheets-4



Reportage- Research Point


Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.

  • What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?
  • Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?
  • How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

Make some notes in your learning Log

It is a really challenging question to consider the difference that colour makes to a field that has a deep and long established history on black and white. I read Scott’s (1988) excellent book Street Photography fro Atget to Cartier Breton. In his description of how street photography developed as artists moved out of their studios and onto the streets, in part as developing technology allowed this transition he summed up the rationale for why black and white images were so much part of the genre of street photography.

‘Colour is often taxed for being preoccupied with appearances, with distractive superficialising glamour; while black and white for its part, has all the gravity of a perceptual asceticism, which by dint of self denial is able to reveal and intepret underlying relationships.’ pp21-22

This statement far more eloquently than I provides a rationale for making images in black and white. It is interesting therefore that a number of photographers chose to buck what at one point was the common trend. The course matures make specific reference to Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr all of whom have aeration for their use of colour. there are others such as Nan Goldin and William Klein who could be added to the canon of artists who chose to work against the prevailing orthodoxy of black and white and chose to work in colour. In many respects these artists laid a foundation of acceptability for other to use colour and a survey of more recent work such as Street Photography Now reveals that Coloues is the main medium.

In considering artists that paved the way for this shift I am am real fan of the work of British photographer John Bulmer.  As a child in the 1970’s I  have many recollections of spending Sunday evening thumbing through the Sunday Times colour supplement. In an era  of photo essays it was documentary photographers such as Bulmer who’s work, often in colour could be found. Perhaps in part through nostalgia, but more importantly through the quality of his colour work, I find his use of colours offers greater insight into the worlds (many of which were disappearing) afforded by the colour images he made.


Copyright John Bulmer

 There is still a very distinct gritty and indeed grainy style to the work but colour locates it in a particular time and affords the viewer more information. I was struck by Boothroyd’s (2015) suggestion that reportage also puts the viewer in the place the photographer:

‘as though one is experiencing the story for ones self’      pp31

There is an intimacy in strong reportage that colour directly contributes to in my limited view. Bummer does this with his colour work and there is a strange sense when looking at some of his cooler work because the subject may no longer exist, as in the image below where in many cases neither pit, miners in the sense of their ponies have long since been consigned to history.


Copyright John Bulmer

Although Bulmer is often associated with pictures of the north of England his work in Belfast and Norther Ireland in the high of the conflict there I think offer a perspective on the question about how images comment on britishness. His work in Belfast is quite different to that of Graham and Seawright who came after him a took a ver different approach. In the case of Seawright an aftermath or late approach. The image below say so much to me and works because it is in colour. The Union Jack Mural locates the work in a particular place and the principle subject locates the work in time. Although in monochrome this would still be an engaging image, it is Bulmer’s use of colour that gives the work power in my opinion.


Copyright John Bulmer

When considering the use of colour in contemporary photography Martin Parr and his quirky take on the British offers further insight into the power of colour. Parr has a very distinctive style and his use of close up ring flash and macro lens create a very distinct and recognisable approach. There has been some criticism of Parr in that his work might be interpreted  as being pejorative in that some have claimed it paints a mocking picture of some communities. He fiercely refutes this and suggests that his work opens up worlds that the wealthy and more affluent would otherwise never have seen. A good example are his images of holiday makers in New Brighton in his phonebook: The Last Resort. In this work he present a window into the world of families holidaying in the other resort at a time when Thatcher was extolling the virtue of wealth creation and the cult of the individual. What ever position views taken to Parr’s work it certainly says more than the pictorial element contained within each frame.


So, what difference does colour make? I suspect there are people with far more knowledge than me who have pondered on this question. I will offer a humble option though. Colour provides more than just additional information. Colour allows the photographer to make a more personal statement. Why? whilst some image makers have created very personal and individual monochrome work, Trent Parke comes to mind, much monochrome work looks very similar in my view. Colour offers some addiotnal layers of creativity and also allows for images to be far more located in time as well as place. I need to reflect further on this though as this course progresses.

I have really trudged thinking about the suggested shift away from the surrealist approaches of earlier documentary photography. I part that I see surrealist influence in much contemporary start photography. Indeed Street Photography Now is full of surrealist images. Surrealist work in many media often contain unexpected juxtapositions hat make the viewer as questions about what is real and to be frank I as stated I see this in some of the work around to day. As an experiment whist writing this I looked on Flickr at the images that were being  explored this afternoon, more than 10% were acutely observed absurdities caught in plan sight. many had a cultural dimension to them, suggesting to me that surrealism as well as quirks of culture have a role to play in presenting , British, american or otherwise cultural representation of the world around us us. to illustrate this point I found the image below, very much capturing america  (for example) today.




Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, OCA, Barnsley

Bulmer, J. ( 2012) The North, Bluecoat Publ., London

Scott, C. (2013) Street Photography- From Atget to Cartier Bresson, IB Tauris, London

Howarth, S. & McLaren, S  Street Photography Nw

Parr, M. (2008) The Last Resort, Dewi Lewis Publ. London

Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, OCA, Barnsley

Project 2 Photojournalism-Research Point

Some musings and personal reflections!


Italian imigrants, Ellis Island, 1905- ©Lewis Hine

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.


from ‘Shot at Dawn’ © Chloe Dewe Mathews

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 (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: (Accessed April 2016) (Accessed April 2016)


Project 1 Eyewitnesses? Exercise (1)

Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power.

How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Write a list of the arguments for and against. For example, you might argue that these pictures do have a degree of objectivity because the photographer (presumably) didn’t have time to ‘pose’ the subjects, or perhaps even to think about which viewpoint to adopt. On the other hand, the images we see in newspapers may be selected from a series of images and how can we know the factors that determined the choice of final image?

Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log before reading further.

In researching for this exercise and considering citizen journalism in relation to the abuse of power it is an uncomfortable truth that the internet is full of images of apparent brutality at the hands of Law Enforcement Agencies. It is perhaps the contradiction implicit in brutality dealt out out by those charged by society to protect us that sits uncomfortably.

With the spread of phones as cameras and recording devices perhaps we are just being more of what has always been there but this makes the reports of brutality none the less disturbing.

In considering citizen journalist it is perhaps alleged police brutality in the united state that has mad the news and the wider media. Few people will not recall the infamous Rodney King case. King was a Los Angeles taxi driver who was beaten by four police officers following a high speed chase on March 3 1991. 


A nearby observer, George Halliday record the incident with a video camera and sent to footage to a local TV station.

That King was beaten seems to be beyond doubt, but the motives of Holliday are unclear. He made the tape and was clearly a witness to the event. I suspect he didn’t feel he could call the police about what was going on. Sending the tape to a new outlet seems on the face of it a pragmatic choice. But not knowing anything about Holliday leaves some gaps in intertepring his actions.

That said, the images of King led to widespread Rioting and a nationwide outcry about police behaviour. The story that developed did not just focus on the police officers involved but sections of the media also presented less than favourable in formation about King. I this sense the image shaped multiple stories in spite of what appears to be prima facia evened of brutality.

There have been many more similar examples of brutality, particularly against black men and boys and there is a growing archive on the internet of examples of such brutality. It appears to only be matched by a similar number of related articles reflecting the lack of prosecutions flowing such incidents. One contribution that citizens journalism unmistakably makes is that many of these incidents would have gone un recorded but for the presence of camera and came phone. In this sense there is a real contribution made to evidence gathering by citizens. What impact that evidence has is unclear though.

A more oblique take on this theme of abuses of power and citizen journalism is the recent resignation of the Icelandic Prime Minister following revelations about his tax affairs and the use of off shore accounts revealed by the release of records in Panama.

People demonstrate against Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson in Reykjavik, Iceland on April 4, 2016 after a leak of documents by so-called Panama Papers stoked anger over his wife owning a tax haven-based company with large claims on the country's collapsed banks. REUTERS/Stigtryggur Johannsson

REUTERS/Stigtryggur Johannsson

Crowds assembled in the capital to demand his resignation and under pressure the pressure Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson did resign. In this case the abuse of power is around tax avoidance amongst the political class, suggesting one rule for them and something different for the rest of the populace. The spread of images of the gathering crowds on social media s well as the news media may have contributed to peoples choice  to go and join the protest. In this sense such citizen images contributed to the intended effect in quickly spreading the scale of the protests. 

Objectivity in documentary photography

“…documentary photography shows the camera at its most potent and radical”

Clarke (1997)

Clarke’s statement highlights the power of the image perhaps more than that of the camera. The two examples I used above demonstrate how an image can influence people, particularly when they are spread quickly to the masses.  None of this though says anything about objectivity. This is an altogether more problematic idea. Yes Rodney King was beaten by police officers and crowds did assemble in reykvic

Can picture be objective?

Arguments for:

  • There is an immediacy about the images I have selected.
  • The photographers were  present and witnesses to the events
  • there was an element of opportunism
  • Events are being captured that might have gone un noticed in a time before cameras and social media
  • There is an element of truth in these images

Arguments against

  • Are we seeing the whole story?
  • What bias might be present in the image maker
  • We don’t always know the image makers intention-for example what was Holliday’s motive for filming the King assault?
  • A documentary photograph may well have a very specific intent on the part of the photographers that may not always be obvious to the viewer

Summary Learning Points



Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford Publishing, Oxford

Love, D. (2015) Study: In Civil Rights Cases Involving Police Brutality, Federal Prosecutors Fail to Indict 96% of the Time-Atlanta Black Star  Found at: Brutality-Federal-Prosecutors-Fail-to-Indict-96-of-the time/ (Accessed April 2016)