Paul Seawright’s (1998) Sectarian Murders is a collection of images capturing the locations of sectarian attacks that took place in Belfast during the 1970’s. The images comprise of seemingly mundane and innate pictures of local spots, often shot with an on camera flash, most likely hotshot for the majority judging by the hotspots and shadows with a telltale sign being the darkness to the lower frame caused by the lens obscuring the light.
Seaworth selects these locations for the significance of their involvement in sectarian murders, some even noted as being a regular location for these types of crimes.
In presenting the images we are given a snippet of information plucked from the newspaper reports associated with the crimes for that location.
Several of the images include direct reference to the particulars of the murder at that scene such as, the view from a car window in ‘Saturday 3rd February 1973’ and the motorcycle in ‘Thursday 14th December 1972’.
In capturing and presenting the images in this way I feel Seawright is looking to create a connection between the viewer and the scene as one of familiarity but in an uncomfortable way. The images are from strange angles, viewpoints and positions, often without a framing composition we would expect and with a lack of clear focal point and focus in general.
It is only with the reading of the text provided that the narrative is revealed for the series and with that knowledge revisiting the images can give the viewer a sense of being the perpetrator of the crimes. These unusual framing techniques now poutting us in positions of hiding and approach. The lighting emphasising the lack of clarity and visibility, with the unusual use of focus and depth of field pinpointing or intent.
I feel that they images are much more inline with an art series than a documentary set. As Seaworth describes, in the video provided as reference, he states ‘…if it is too explicit then it becomes journalistic’.
Due to the very nature of his choice of composition, lighting and focus the images are far removed from what we are used to a documentary. We expect certain rules of composition to be met when we view images as part of documentary, here I think the only link back to that style of photography and work is the use of news media reference for the context on each image and the locations themselves.
Seawright makes several good points in his argument that ‘the holy grail is to make that visually engages people…then gives itself up, gives its meaning up slowly’. I agree with his concept of the revealing story and that there needs to be an engaging image to capture the attention of the viewer. Without that first spark of intrigue no-one would stay around for the reveal, and with a singularly good image without a story to reveal would have little chance to embed itself in the viewers mind. Work that becomes too ambiguous or obtuse can also have the affect of turning people away through difficulty or boredom and even becoming pompous. With the ability to engage a viewer over a series, each image revealing a little more we have the opportunity to deliver a well rounded story, opportunity to develop the context and narrative within the frame and support the overall goal more effectively.
Whether I feel that he achieves this with this series is a different question. I find it hard to relate to the story or the images. It relates to a location I have never visited, a time I wasn’t alive for and period of history I never experienced. It is only the provided context that gives me any type of insight into the narrative but it is almost as if the context needs a context, or that the narrative needs to further developed within the images to really get across the message he wants to communicate beyond those who personally relate to the events he looks to communicate. I feel the work would be very effective if exhibited within the area of the events to an audience of the time who would have more than enough pieces to put together a wealth of feelings and memories, but for the outsider its lacks the definitive image that brings the threads together.
On defining documentary photography as art, I don’t believe that changes its meaning. I feel the contents of what is being discussed or communicated are what makes documentary interesting and relatable, where as the method of communicating it needs to change and adapt to become effective across different audiences. If documentary photography is effective in communicating its message, and achieves that by presenting that information in an artful way then it is still documentary.
The definition from Google credited to Oxford
- 1. consisting of or based on official documents.”documentary evidence of regular payments from the company”
- 2. using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject.