Response to Martha Rosler’s ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’

My kids’ school library has a lovely selection of photography books and, as I found out today, a few interesting books on photography as well! I’ve just finished reading an essay by David Levi Strauss from his book ‘Words not spent today buy smaller images tomorrow’, in which he discusses the work of Susan Meiselas in light of Rosler’s idea that documentary photography is exploitative of character and leads to moral indifference. (Rosler, 1992)

First of all, it was very encouraging that reading Rosler’s work paid off, even though it was such a tough one! Discovering how her thoughts are perceived by other photographers and writers deepens my own way of thinking about the ethics of documentary photography and will hopefully also reflect in my own photographic practice.

Meiselas first objection to Rosler’s critique on documentary is that her thoughts are ‘largely based on a set of assumptions about how this kind of work is actually received and used by the public‘, the idea that informing and storytelling are incompatible, causing art to push news offstage and creating an antirealist effect. Although Meiselas realises that these assumptions are legitimate and valuable questions, they are not based on research.

Her own practice of juxtaposing photographs with straightforward testimonies from the subjects make her stories clear, forceful and memorable. Meiselas assumes that by reciprocating the stories she sees and hears she can communicate the experiences of others that can lead to greater understanding, leading to reform rather than a revolution. A downside of these liberal beliefs is that they emphasize the individual understanding over that of the community or state, which could lead to the moral indifference Rosler warns us for.

However, Meiselas is aware of that and therefor a guardian of the context in which she photographs. “It is important to me – in fact, it is central to my work – that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places.”  Meiselas goes back to the people she has photographed and sheds new lights on the context in which the photographs were taken.

This essay has been very inspiring and so has been looking at some of Meiselas work and thinking about her photographic practice. It drives me to be more aware of the way I want to tell the stories of people and places I photograph. Which information does justice to my subjects? In which ways do I influence the way my photographs and captions are perceived?

‘More information does not necessarily increase realism. Information can ibe indigestible in its raw form, and must be prepared differently in order to be effective, to be of use. Masses of data are not memorable. images are memorable. Stories are memorable. As we move headlong into a world in which the delivery of information, in images and words, becomes more fluent and more rapid every day, the task of the storyteller is becoming more necessary, and more endangered.’ (Strauss, 2014)

Rosler, M. (1992) The Contest of meaning. Bolton: MIT Press.
Strauss, D.L. (2014) Words not spent today buy smaller images tomorrow: Essays on the present and future of photography. Washington, DC, United States: Aperture.

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