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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Exercise – A Decisive Moment

A few lines from the Bainbridge’s article I find particularly interesting:

‘Photography is not so much the result of what’s in front of the camera, rather than the motives, instincts and ideas behind it’

‘Ideas take place over aesthetic concerns, although they stay important’

Continuing the question whether it is the subject and moment in the photograph that defines the image, the role of the photographer or the interpretation of the viewer, I find that this article gives a balanced approach with good examples of photography that has gone beyond the pure esthetic concerns and visual language. I hadn’t realized before how much documentary photography has been defined by the media outlets that show the work and that with shifts in media there is much more freedom for photographers to ‘search for new ways to communicate with audiences’.

Now, when looking at a photograph we look beyond the pure visual languages and question how photographers have embedded themselves in situations and have negotiated themselves in situations.

These questions become especially clear in Donald Weber’s work on interrogation practices in the Ukraine. Weber was able to attend and photograph interrogations of Ukranian prisoners and take images at the points in which they were most under pressure. In a way these are very decisive moments, because they are taken at the height of the conversation. Knowing that these photographs are not staged, it does question what has made the photographer get to be there and what his ideas are of the practices that took place in front of his camera.

I read an interview on Lensculture in which he explains his ideas behind the project and it becomes clear that he has a deep understanding of what brings the police officers to use such force and makes the concept of power and bureaucracy to an higher level.

Bainbridge, H. (no date) Hereford Photography Festival. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/hereford_bainbridge.pdf (Accessed: 13 October 2016).
Weber, D. and LensCulture (no date) Interrogations – photographs by Donald Weber. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/donald-weber-interrogations#slide-1 (Accessed: 13 October 2016).

Exercise – The myth of objectivity

Reading Bazin’s and Sekula’s article, I can understand where both point of views come from. I realise how much a shock it must have been at the invention of photography that reality could be portrayed in such a true way. More, that now there was the opportunity to document every element in life and not be dependent on the style and interest of the painter. Even though Bazin acknowledges that the photographer has an influence on the outcome of the photograph, reality is shown in such a way it has never been before.

Sekula on the other hand, makes a profound case for recognising that this claim for truth is based on a myth and that information that is passed on is determined by the relationship between viewed and viewer itself. Therefor it is impossible to ascribe an intrinsic meaning to the image itself.

The example of the difference between Hine’s and Stieglitz work makes it very clear. Stieglitz manifests aesthetics and consequently dehumanises the people in his images, denying the status of his subjects as a report, while Hine uses his photography as a report, but with a layer of spiritual expression.

Both articles have been very insightful. Bazin’s because it shows how the myth of objectivity has come into being and Sekula’s because it makes such a clear distinction between the symbolic and realist elements of this myth. He shows that the context and intentions in which the photographs were taken do determine the meaning of a photograph, but that this is not automatically been transferred to the viewers of the photograph. It has made me aware that I need to think about my intentions when I take a photograph, but also how I show it in public and in which context.

Bazin, A. and Gray, H. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the photographic image’, Film Quarterly, 13(4), pp. 4–9. doi: 10.2307/1210183.
Sekula, A. (1975) On The Invention of Photographic Meaning. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/sekula_photomeaning.pdf (Accessed: 11 October 2016).

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).