Exercise – Photos from my Personal Collection

It has been a while since I posted my images on the OCA forum. Looking at the images now, I wonder if they were actually the kinds of images that we were supposed to post, since they’re not all relevant on a personal level. But well, here they are!


The response I got from the forum is the following:

Wow, you have chosen images which are difficult to read. And it is not obvious in which country/culture the photographs are taken.
So I’ll try to describe what I see.
1. Maybe this is Guinea (former French Guinea) judging from the flags on the truck. I see Sinterklaas (a Dutch custom) standing on the truck waving at the girl, who is holding the present she got?
2. Street photograph. Man sitting in front of a butcher shop. Maybe India (English speaking country).
3. The child needs to be distracted using Teletubbies. Maybe because the child needs to be shaven for a religious ceremony. Possibly India again?
4. Looks like a classroom for grown-ups. Difficult to read.
5. A class of children wearing traditional tribal clothing. A party? A dance? Africa? Guinea again?
In regards to the idea that a photograph is ambiguous because it is taken out of a continuity, I think that the response to the caption shows that the level of ambiguity is dependent on the viewer’s own experiences and knowledge of the subject in front. Maurice (the student who responded to my images) could recognise some of the places where the images were taken and therefor drew conclusions that were quite close to what the images depict.
However, it is true that even though the basics of the images are well interpreted, they obviously don’t show my personal connection, feelings and place in my life story. It does need more information to be able to convey that.
I notice that when I look at images that seem ambiguous, I draw conclusions that tend to be shaken or confirmed after reading the captions. So I agree that they produce and ‘effect of certainty, even dogmatic assertion’, although I think that captions can also produce even more ambiguity. By stating what it is about, the process of interpretation is also being steered and disrupted. It’s probably not one thing or the other, just elements that one needs to be aware of.

Discontinuities – Captions

This part of the course touches the concept of what determines the information that a photograph conveys. Although the actual elements in the photograph determine how the image itself can be described, it is the ‘context within which a photograph is produced, distributed and consumed that determines the information that it conveys’. Before studying photography I was not so aware of these other factors that determine the way I look at photographs and the conclusions I draw from their meaning apart from the visual elements in the image itself.

It took a few instances of ‘viewer’s rage’, the upheaval that is caused when one discovers that what you have been looking at is not real, to become aware of my own paradigm from which I look at images and the influence of presentation and background information. Now that I photograph myself and try to extend the genres in which I work, I realise even more how much influence I have on the final image and still how completely different the images are perceived by its viewers.

I realise that in the case of wanting to point to a certain element of the portrayed reality, an image can’t do without caption or other information (like audio) to guide the viewer’s eye and perceptions in that direction. The reader quotes Berger about the effect of adding text to a photograph, “they produce together an effect of certainty, even dogmatic asertion” (Berger & Mohr, 1995, p.91).

Thinking about captioning, Jim Goldberg and Duane Michals are some examples that are masters of captioning. Through the combination of their captions and images they are able to reinforce and complement each other and bring a viewer to a completely different conclusion after its initial look at the image. Their captions bring deeper meaning, not only to the image as a whole, but to the personalities and thoughts of the subjects in the images themselves, drawing the viewer into the inner lifes, instead of keeping a distant surveying view that other documentary photographs sometimes tend to have. From subjects, the people in the images become personalities, with thoughts and frustrations, deeper feelings and human frailties.

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SayItWithSilence (2013) ‘Person to person’ by Duane Michals, 1974 SayItWithSilence. Available at: http://www.siws.fr/2013/11/25/32416/ (Accessed: 1 September 2016).
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Girap, S. and Goldberg, J. (2014) Jim Goldberg. Available at: http://alchetron.com/Jim-Goldberg-572907-W (Accessed: 1 September 2016).

Exercise -Realism

Kendall Walton states in his article that looking at photographs brings viewers in perceptual contact with the world or, since the article is touching on the idea of the realism, reality. Photography provokes a certain kind of seeing that asks for a different mode of perception. ‘Facts about our discriminative capacities might be said to create similarities relative to our conceptual scheme, thereby establishing the relevant correlations.’

It is very fruitful to think about how we perceive reality and which beliefs make us conclude that what we see and experience is actually true. Photographs take a step further and ask us to consider whether what is in the frame is a true depiction of what was in front of the camera at that time. I agree with Walton that photographs have a different effect on our sense of what is real, but think that he misses a few important factors that establish our concept of reality. First of all, when looking at photographs, we know that it was taken in a split second of a moment, not giving space for making changes in a scene which would be possible while painting. Second, because most viewers are unaware of the processes that take place when taking a photograph, the creative and conceptual decisions that are made in post processing and framing, they assume a certain ‘what you see is what you get’, while when painting or drawing they know that each stroke is a deliberate choice to depict reality or not.

As soon as viewers find out how much a photographer can alter reality in the final image, they more and more start to let go of the idea of a photograph being the exact representation of the subject in that moment of time and open up to the idea that a photograph is a result of the creative decisions of the photographer in portraying a slice of reality taken in a split second of time.

Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent pictures: On the nature of photographic realism’, Noûs, 18(1), p. 67. doi: 10.2307/2215023.



History of Documentary – Search for Realities.

‘Photography – The Whole Story’ is a book that I often use to get a global idea on the history of photography, influences and genres that have developed since the first photograph. There are a few chapters on the early years of documentary. From what I read soon after the mass production of Daguerrotypes for personal use, photography was used to document events, people and exotic places. I can imagine that there was a real hunger for images of the unknown places and people that before then had only been written about.

The photograph soon acquires the status of the depiction of reality, even though early practices already show how events were reconstructed and people photographed from a specific point of view. Images were used as a counter proof for political events, or as scientific proof for illnesses, ethnographic differences etc. It seems that photography opened the can of insatiable curiosity and ways to research.

Looking at the photographic practice now I think photographers have developed their ethics in how to portray people and places, although the core idea of showing rarities, dramatic incidents and exotic places are still the driving force of most documentary photographers.

There is a responsibility that photographers need to take up to really think about the use and effects of their photographs, but even more for viewers of images to look beyond stereotypes, ask questions about the context in which the images were taken and the usage of the photographs.

Hacking, J., Campany, D., Plowman, F., Engels, G.-J.K. and Deul (2012) Fotografie in het juiste perspectief: Een compleet overzicht van de belangrijkste foto’s, fotografen en stromingen uit de geschiedenis van de fotografie. Kerkdriel: Librero.

What makes a document? – Moana

After reading the introduction on how the term documentary came into being, I researched the movie Moana, the first film that was said to have ‘documentary’ value. I read about the making of the film and realized that most of the movie was a set up and not a reflection of the life in the tribe at that moment in time. The story of the Moana was a product of the idea of ‘Man against Nature’ that documentary maker Flaherty had in mind and was assigned to when set out to make his film. Even the 2001 restoration with added sound clips (that his daughter recorded 50 years later) are aimed at showing this idea. This fabricated truth made me wonder why it was ascribed to have documentary value, especially when I read that in the time of the production of the movie the island Samoa entered a political crisis that evolved around the rights and identity of the local community, which is by no means touched upon in the movie itself. To me it seems that if Flaherty had reported those developments, it would have had documentary value.

However, after doing a bit more online researching, I found this article, ‘Documentary as a Mode of Reception‘ (1995) by Dirk Eitzen, that discusses the questions that arise when trying to define the term documentary.

Eitzen starts out with discussing Grierson’s definition of documentary, which is ‘the creative treatment of actuality‘, which gives room to the practice of Flaherty. He creatively documented his idea through actual people and places, even though the traits of the tribes that he films were outdated and certain traditions were acted by the locals in clothes they didn’t wear anymore. Grierson’s definition makes me wonder what is actuality, since ‘even our “brute” perceptions of the world are inescapably tainted by our beliefs, assumptions, goals and desires‘ (Eitzen, 1995). What do people commonly take by the term of what is actuality? The key factor that sets the actuality, documentary apart from fiction is a common, self chosen ‘mandate to represent the historical world rather than imaginary ones‘ (Nichols). With this definition, Flaherty’s Moana’s documentary value starts to become quite dubious.

What I like about these kind of articles is that they come to a conclusion from where they start to ask new questions and enlarge the way of thinking about a subject. Instead of concluding with the element of historical reality, Eitzen questions what this might be and how reality is being perceived individually in general. According to Woltersdorff ‘All representational works, including both documentaries and fiction films project a world, … it is the expression of someone’s imagination, the ‘state of affairs’ which can be projected in various stances (Woltersdorff). Depending on which stance, the fictive or assertive stance (claims of truth) one can define it, with the assertive stance being documentary. However, from a viewer’s point of view it is the ‘imaginary involvement and identification, not truth claims, that draws viewers to documentaries (Eitzen 1995)‘.

So if the definition depends on questions about the truth as well as its reading by viewers it makes sense to ask the question ‘Might it be lying?’ The applicability of this question is what distinguishes documentaries, and nonfiction in general, from fiction (Eitzen). It’s the difference between fake and a lie.

Eitzen gives a few examples of movies that show that the margins between fiction and documentary are very vague. I believe that in photography this is even more the case, since in a photograph we only see a fraction of time in a framed space that has been developed and manipulated in ways that are invisible to the common viewer. The article also introduced me to the idea of ‘viewer’s rage’, the anger that viewers feel when they discover that what they have been looking at is not real. It reminded me of the uproar when Steve Mccurry’s images turned out to be much more Photoshopped than they were thought to be. These dilemma’s shift the question from ‘what is a documentary to when‘.

Eitzen concludes his article with ‘Documentary is what people are accustomed to make of it, no more and no less’. This seems like an easy solution to defining such a term, but I think it touches the importance of leaving the viewers and producers’ side open to creative interpretations of the truth and history.

Last Monday I visited a temple in Old Delhi and took the following photography:


I was sitting in front of the god, which was placed behind a dirty window. The mirror reflected the man back of me and the woman in the front. With the help of Photoshop I was able to bring in many more details than were visible, delete my own reflection and give it an overall completely different look.

Thinking what makes a documentary photograph I realize that depending on the definition, you could fit this photograph in the genre or not. First of all, because of all the changes I had made of the actual image I thought it was loosing it’s documentary value, but now I think it is a perfect example of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality!

Eitzen, D. (1995) ‘When is a documentary? Documentary as a mode of reception’, Cinema Journal, 35(1), p. 81. doi: 10.2307/1225809.
Narborough, E. (2013) Www.Slideshare.Net. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/ElisaNarborough/theory-of-documentary (Accessed: 23 August 2016).
reserved, A. rights (2010) MOANA – A ROMANCE OF THE GOLDEN AGE. Available at: http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/4765 (Accessed: 23 August 2016).
Grierson, John  1971 [1926] ‘Flaherty’s Poetic Moana’ in Jacobs ed. 1971: 25-6