Project 2: Photojournalism

In project 2 we are asked to consider three questions regarding the critical debate surrounding photojournalism.

The arguments, I feel, boil down to one main question, the validity of photography as a documentary medium.

The first question we are posed is, do we think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers? Is the work exploitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run and can photography change situations?

Referencing La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, in which the author curates a summery of Rosler’s essay ‘the Contest of Meaning’, I found myself agreeing with certain points of the questions posed.

I don’t feel Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers.

In her essay Rosler associates the documentary photographer to a predator, with the goals of ‘…exoticism, tourism, voyeurism . . . trophy hunting-and careerism’ (p. 307). Extreme allegations but ones I feel we see even more in the age of social fame where the amateur photographer gains acknowledgement and accolade for capturing images of travel and poverty in the same breath whilst having no message or overarching drive to resolve issue, all in the name of gaining followers and likes. Often attaching context through captions with no deeper meaning than the ability to gain traction in the market. In this sense I do believe this type of photographer is exploitative and patronising.

Rosler highlights that feedback from advertising agencies would strive for ‘believability’ and ‘authentic’ images when issuing briefs. Often this aim is what the photographer will look to fulfil in pursuit of attracting potential employers and again in the social media world, shares and retweets. Again linking back to the point that viewing such images is ‘Like scratching an itch, tit relieves the conscience of it’s viewers and reassures them about their financial position.’ For many the observation of the documentary photograph is a reminder that they are the lucky ones.

This reminder that the viewer is the lucky one is not the same as building empathy or creating change. With the distance between the viewer and subject sympathy at most can be invoked but empathy takes a deeper understanding or more critical thinker. In isolation a photograph is little more than a sentence in a chapter.

When talking of change the next question on whether images of war are necessary to provoke change is one in which I think of the photograph as part of a larger movement. I would agree that images are necessary to provoke change but as mentioned above, in isolation they alone can’t instigate that societal shift.

In the summary of the essay ‘On Photography’ the author writes ‘Photographs reinforce and help develop new moral positions but they cannot by themselves create them.’

This is a viewpoint I agree with, a photograph is only a slice of time or event, with little more than the surface on show. It captures only the look of a moment and not the function, feel or external. Photography alone only garners recognition of the event and not understanding. And while the abundance of imagery gives a sense of the world at large but not the experience. Again referencing back to the observer and even the photographer being tourists, snapping away capturing memories, vistas and trophies.

I don’t believe that the proliferation of horrific images causes apathy and numbness in viewers. Taboo has been defined by the political systems and as those social rules relax so does the accepted reaction to what we see. When we see intensely shocking images we are expected to be impacted by those purely on the basis that in experiencing that moment the natural reaction is shock but, in reality it is the very fact that it is a photograph that distances us from that experience, it creates a disembodiment of the event, and banalises in its plainness. I liken to the effect of the unseen monster in horror films, we all know that seeing the monster ruins the effect as our imaginations create something much more threatening, seeing the monster becomes an anticlimax in its banality.

Photographs create the distance to disassociate from the subject, images of war and famine remind us that we are lucky enough to not be involved and as it is a record of what has happened and not what will happen it is beyond our control which is reassuring and relieving allowing us to concentrate on the aesthestics of the image. And become desensitised to the subject.

I think the true effectiveness of photography comes as part more complex multi channel communication. I which we can understand what the image is of, when and where it was taken, why it should effect us and how it relates to us. When presented with a fuller story a photograph can live to its potential in its directness or ability to exaggerate and emphasise a point.

As to whether a documentarian needs to be an insider to the project is a complex question. Earlier in this piece I agreed that socially driven photographers need to be held to account on the goals and purposes of the project suggesting that they should be part of the larger movement in some part to establish their altruistic intentions. the issue there lies in that this goal can lead to the project being favourable towards the goal when ideally an objective would provide a balanced opinion. As apposed to that the outsider may have alterer motives to complete the project and paint the project in bad light or simply pursue the aesthetic. This is without considering the effect on the character of the subject when presented with the lens following their every movement.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes in ‘Inside/Out that Goldin, documentary photographer, points out that the people in her photographs regard her camera as a part of her, suggesting that the presence of it does not intrude on the relationship she builds, in which claiming claiming that she becomes an insider and therefore more able to capture her subjects in vulnerable positions. The issue there is that the subject will tend towards presenting an image they want to be seen, in Goldins work it is pointed out that ‘…these photographs resemble fashion photographs of the time and show no structural difference from such photographs.’ In other words flattering the subject.

On the other hand the concept of being the outsider lends itself to not having personal stakes in the project and therefore more likely to preserve integrity. With no prior involvement and potential loss in the production of documentary one would tend to agree but, with this outsiders view how much is pure perception of the photographer when so much can be hidden.

I think a successful documentary would again lie somewhere in the middle. A relationship which starts on the outside to ensure objectivity with a move to the inside to challenge preconceptions and understanding of what was observed on the outside. As with an human relationship there is no solid answer. How can we not bring our own ideas and thoughts to the table when planning and executing a documentary project and yet, if we go with an open mind willing to relax those preconceptions we are then prone to change of heart during the inside stage and therefore swing the tainted observation in the other direction.

Overall reading through these three chapters really challenged my own thoughts on photojournalism. As conscious beings I believe we will always have an issue with balancing the objectivity a documentary project with our own preconceptions and the unknown information we may discover during the process. We have a responsibility remain dissociated from the subject in order to maintain objectivity but it is only through association we can gain understanding and the trust needed to uncover hidden information. The very fact that life is generally banal and uninteresting leads to lack of interest and engagement in imagery but the pursuit of attention leads to a focus on the aesthetic which then leads to the diversion of the viewer towards to creator over the subject matter. The effectiveness of the image is astounding but as a single piece it won’t evoke change unless there is dozens of different factors all inline at once.

I feel to best balance these factor we must first understand ourselves and our main drivers for the project we undertake. That way we can reflect on and consider how we may unintentionally influence the project.

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