Notes on Martha Rosler’s ‘In, Around and After thoughts (on Documentary Photography)’

My first comment after reading this text is that it was an incredible tough read. I took two naps in between to clear up my head a bit and only started to understand its ideas after reading through my notes a couple of times.

I wonder why these theories have to be written down in such a complicated way, but I assume that by the time I have read more it will all become a bit easier to digest!

Here are a few notes that I took and passages that I highlighted:

Early documentary started as propaganda for social work and the rectification of wrongs, but shifted from being driven by moral idealism to a liberal documentation which:
assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their relative wealth and social position‘. Because of this the basic function of documentary has changed, but also its meaning. ‘The boringly sociological becomes the excitingly mythological/psychological.’ This results in a ‘cultural reflex of wrenching all artworks out of their context’…. a process of aestaeticization of meaning and denial of content, the denial of the existence of the political dimension.’

Studying the history of photography, I recognize this development, but I wonder if it is too narrow to claim that one genre has changed into an other, I think it’s better to claim that it has split up, with a chunk of documentary photography still taking place in order to promote social change (think of NGO photography and photo journalism), while an other part is produced mainly for the art scene. Rosler sounds quite cynical about this development with its ‘work locked in fascination to its own material‘, but I think her view is a bit too myopic.

However, her remarks did make me think about my own practice, especially her comments about street photography:

The street and its culture become both a source of style and a theatrical setting for an art still aimed at high-culture audiences and the intermediary subcultures of young producers and supporters.

The bludgeoning of human sentiments and the truncation of social life, whose continuing vitality testifies to human resiliency under terrible conditions ..are transformed into exciting, even sensational, sources of artistic experiment and imagery, with no accompanying acknowledgment of oppression and need. That which was evidence becomes a source for celebration.

When I am photographing people that are much poorer than I am, I am aware of the fact that I am going to portray their situation and world in a completely different context and that it is going to be understood and seen from a perspective the subjects in my photographs will find completely unrealistic and maybe voyeuristic. Because of this I do notice that I hardly take photographs of people when they are not aware, and my most favorite images don’t have people in it. I just feel that I’m not doing justice to a person if I turn it into a subject that will be pitied because I choose to put it in a frame and take it completely out of context.

It’s a difficult issue though, because I also feel that if poverty and social injustice would not be photographed at all, no visual connections would be built, making it even harder to connect with people who live under different circumstances and feel equally human.

‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ by Martha Rosler in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (p.303).

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