Whilst ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, in Decoys and Disruptions: selected

Whilst speaking of documentary within the twenty-first century, Martha Rosler claims
that it ‘is undergoing profound challenges from multiple sources, on social, political,
and ethical grounds.’1 She believes that, ‘these challenges, which radically
undermine photography’s fundamental claim to a unique capacity to offer direct
insight into the real, have produced something of a crisis amongst artists and
intellectuals and troubled some in journalism and the legal professions, if not others in
the wider audience.’2 I aim to address how artists and photographers — namely,
Roland Barthes, John Grierson, and Martha Rosler — have questioned and
challenged the assumption that photographs provided a truthful representation of
what was before the lens. The importance of which to do so has been to highlight the
use of sensationalism and voyeurism, by documentarians and photojournalists, in the
avoidance to acknowledge truth value, as well as to underline the ‘dichotomies of
accuracy and aesthetics…by which we have come to judge the worth of documentary
imagery.’3 I will also touch upon the ways in which the burgeoning sub-genre of
street-photography encourages photographer advocacy and self-projection and
invites the viewer to subjectively receive the image, thus encouraging questionable
doubt as to the testimonial claims of the photograph.

The photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination:
false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal
hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it
is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”) : a mad image, chafed by
reality. 4

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It is the assumed truth value of photography and film — demonstrated by its
abundant use within pedagogy, law enforcement, the mass media, and the home —
which has propelled the genre deep into the realms of power and influence and
caused both mediums to become ‘greatly effective vehicles for reportage and
commentary.’5 Social documentary, characterised by it’s ostensible claims of
testimony, is the one sub-genre of photography in which questions of social power
are raised. In March 1997, Middle America were informed that ‘Documentary film
makers have to manipulate reality in order to make their art, even if that means

exploiting their subject’ , the information came in the form of a headline on the front

cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. This statement pertains to the idea
1 Martha Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, in Decoys and Disruptions:

selected writings, 1975 – 2001, p.207-208
2 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.207-208
3 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.207-208
4 Roland Barthes, ‘Madness, Pity’, in Camera Lucida, p.115
5 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.207-208

6 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.210

that aestheticism and artfulness are ranked more highly, in terms of importance, than
truth value, and as ‘documentary, whether still or moving, precisely as an “art-ful”
practice, can hardly escape the inclination toward some form of dramatization sic.’7
Certainly, in the post-modern and post-photographical era it is impossible not to
acknowledge the burgeoning use of rapidly developing digital imaging technology,
such as Photoshop, After Effects, and Premier Pro, widely encouraging the
domestication of photo manipulation and alteration processes. This widespread
availability raises concerns surrounding both still and moving imagery in relation to it’s
sources and as the Western world becomes more accustomed to hearing phrases
such as ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ it is unsurprising that it has begun to raise
suspicions over ‘political authority’8 as well as ‘truth and objectivity’9 of journalism.

The tide of change poses it’s own particular threat to documentary, since
“post-photographic” practice at a minimum can be said to have abandoned
any interest in indexicality and, perhaps just as importantly, in the privileged
viewpoint of “witness” — and therefore any embeddedness in a particular
moment in time and space.10

After immigrating to America in 1870, Jacob Riis eventually found himself in the
advantageous position of police reporter, during which time he had access to the
immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and eventually discovered
flash photography as a way in which to document the squalor of the New York slums.
Despite Riis’s own social and financial hardship, following his arrival in America, his
work is primarily defined by its Bourgeois culture and the middle-class reformers by
whom it was received. The methodology which Riis employed during his ‘housing
crusade’11 was both aggressive and invasive, concerning itself not with aesthetics but

with simply evidencing the destitution of his nameless subjects as ‘symptomatic’ .

In opposition to the artless candor of Riis is Lewis Hine, whose activist
objectives — he strived to bring forth ‘legislative changes relating to work’13 — drove
his development in photographic practice. Hine already had an intrinsic interest in
aesthetics upon his entry into documentary and felt strongly about maintaining, what
he believed to be, an ostensible union between aesthetics and ethical concern. It was
not uncommon for Hine to use deceit in gaining access into restricted factory settings

7 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.210
8 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.210
9 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.210
10 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.211
11 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.219
12 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.219

13 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.219

in order to attain primary understanding of the deplorable working conditions of the
twentieth century — this is evident within his Making Human Junk, a body of work
which ‘consciously produced counteradvertising to the popular “making healthy
children” advertising of the early-twentieth-century food industry.’14 In doing so he
was able to engage in conversation with his subjects, recording their names, ages,
and various other forms of applicable information. Hine was also keen to ‘engage in a
transaction with the subjects that resulted in a dignified yet responsive pose’15 — thus
producing an authority evident within his photos, which surely suggests some degree
of photographer’s advocacy— potentially rendering Hine’s images as significantly less
truthful than those of Riis, whose subjects were mere ‘victims of their terrible
surroundings’16 caught in the act of being so.

It is not just the “parachuting photojournalist” who has carefully crafted for
oneself the reputation of being highly irresponsible with an apathy toward the lives of
one’s subjects, documentarians are often accused of having an acute fascination with
the misery and suffering of others. On many occasions, notably that of Eugene
Richards, documentary photographers are faced with claims of financially profiting
from the abjection of vulnerable people. Issues of fair representation and truth value
within documentary photography are undoubtedly married, yet Cocaine True Cocaine
Blue —Richard’s apparently “in-depth and intimate look at the embattled lives of
addicts, drug dealers, sex workers and police in three inner-city communities” — is a
perfect example of a failure to successfully amalgamate the two. The publication
received a wave of criticism and controversy on the basis that the (white middle-
class) photographer was negatively influencing viewer reception by means of
sensationalism and voyeurism in order to heighten and distort an already problematic
stereotype, thus exaggerating the percentage of African Americans involved in
crime. 17

Richards, of course, was not alone in receiving accusations of falsifying truths,
the work of Diane Arbus was consistently held in contempt over her methods of
manipulation through the overtly sensationalistic abjection of marginalised people18,
and Walker Evans angered his Hale County subjects by “casting them in a light that

14 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.215
15 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.219
16 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.220

17 Charles Hagen, ‘Review/Photography; ‘Cocaine True’: Art or Sensationalism?’, in
The New York Times (website), 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/03/11/arts/
review-photography-cocaine-true-art-or-sensationalism.html, (11/01/2018)

18 Sean O’Hagan, ‘Diane Arbus: humanist or voyeur?’, in The Guardian (website),
sideshow, (11/01/2018)


they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant.”19 Contrarily (or
perhaps consequently), whilst embarking upon his body of work, Many Are Called,
Evans used a hidden camera, concealed within his coat, in order to gain a more
accurate and honest portrayal of his unsuspecting subjects as they rode the New
York subway.20 The work of Paul Strand offered a invigoratingly fresh take on
documentary photography, casting aside the the notion of “romantic pastoralism” in
favour of an honest glimpse into the lives and conditions of those in the twentieth
century. Strands method of capturing his subjects — he employed the use of a trick
camera whose lens appeared to point elsewhere — may be ethically uncertain but it is
undoubtedly a truthful representation of his unknowing subjects. Unlike the work of
Richards, Strand’s closely cropped candid images of New Yorkers existing in the
modernist world leave themselves open to subjectivity without any sense of
photographer advocacy or sensationalism.21

‘The penalty of realism is that it is about reality and has to bother for ever not about
being ‘beautiful’ but about being right.’22 Documentary has always proclaimed to
focus intently on the conveyance of an honest representation of lived experience and
in doing so, aesthetics has taken a back seat, thought of latterly to testimony. It
cannot be ignored, however, that in post-modern society (although such a trope was
actually first reared within modernism)23 documentarians have had a tendency to
switch their stance when needed, clinging to the viewers reception of the aesthetic
dimension of their work as a way of safeguarding them against any potential claims of
‘propagandizing” sic, and diverting attention away “from its own truth claims.”24 This
produces a visual language between sensationalism, forcing the illusion of truth and
subsequently influence, and ‘its reception by the viewer.’25 Instead of pragmatically
assessing the image and extracting an objective truth, the ostentatious allure
encapsulates the viewer, offering ‘subjectivised witness’26 and dodging both
‘responsibility and reportorial accuracy.’27

19 Walter Ben Michaels, ‘The Art of Inequality: Then and Now’ in The Beauty of a
Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy, p.105-121

20 James Agee, ‘Introduction’ in Many Are Called, by Walker Evans, p.11-15
21 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.220-221
22 James Beveridge, ‘Documentary News Letter’, in John Grierson, Film Master, p.178
23 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.211
24 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.211
25 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.211
26 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.220-221

27 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.224

In documentary’s infancy, restaging was an acceptable vehicle in the portrayal of truth
value, yet in modernist society it is imperative that the photographer overtly rejects
visual tropes and reconstructions, replacing them, instead, with honesty and
transparency.28 This, alongside a ‘balance of trust in the…medium of distribution’29
ensures a credible transaction between photographer and viewer. For years, due to its
associations with news photography, the reception of black and white images was
that of trust and reliability, a potential explanation for how many of the
aforementioned documentarians were able to preach testimony from manipulative
methodologies.30 However, in the postmodern era the use of colour, previously
reserved for personal and commercial photography, begun to seep into mainstream
media presenting the word with apparently truthful instant “snapshots” of reality —
first seen in cinema verity and pop music videos.31 Aesthetically exquisite images of
the misfortunate working class of post-industrial Britain (Ray’s a Laugh, Richard
Billingham)32 or the grisly murder scenes of London (Landscape of Murder, Antonio
Olmos)33 have become so common that the public are now more inclined to reject
black and white imagery as being doctored and henceforth untrustworthy.

In terms of the sharing of images via mass media, there is still some doubt and
uncertainty surrounding the ethical and representational qualities of
photojournalism.34 In contrast to the fluid motives of the documentarian, the
responsibility of the journalist is purely ‘to society — that is, to readers and viewers.’35
It is for this reason that journalists often find themselves charged with “selling papers”
through any means necessary, including the exploitation of society’s “victims” through
voyeurism or ‘furthering the editor’s or publisher’s ideological or political agenda.’36

28 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.224-225
29 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.224
30 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.225
31 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.225

32 Tim Adams, ‘Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’, in
The Guardian (website), 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/
13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz, (11/01/2018)

33 Sean O’Hagan, ‘The Landscape of Murder – Antonio Olmos’s photographs of
London murder sites’, in The Guardian (website), 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/
murder-sites, (11/01/2018)

34 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.226
35 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.226
36 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.226


If I like the photograph, if it disturbs me, I linger over it. What am I doing,
during the whole time I remain with it? I look at it, I scrutinise it, as if I wanted
to know more about the thing or the person it represents.37

The same has been said for one of documentary’s fast evolving sub-genres,
that is “street photography.” Historically, in similar-such practices it was understood
that there was a distance in status and social class between the photographer and
the subject38, utilising the medium as a way to document the ‘so-called Other’39 in it’s
most natural form. However, street photography has displaced itself from such a
structure and transmuted into somewhat of a subjective form of self-projection
whereby ‘the photographer, rather than the subjects, becomes a kind of
psychological or characterological type, and it is with the photographer that one
identifies.’40 This personalisation of imagery, through a focus purely on the individual,
eliminates any sense of the social and breeds a blatant “invitation to voyeurism”41 in
an era when such a practice, of sensationalism and the presentation of tendentious
imagery, is so openly accepted and praised by mass culture. It could therefore be
argued that as the great divide of wealth and social class widens, the practice of
social documentary, despite its turbulent relationship to accurate representation and
truth value, has revealed itself to be the backbone to a ‘frame of unity, even if a
fractured and fractious one.’42

So why has it been important to question and challenge the assumption that
photographs provided a truthful representation of what was before the lens? Simply,
because visual manipulation has, historically, proven to be instrumental in influencing
the masses — socially, politically, and ethically. In addition, in this post-modern and
post-photographic era, widespread access to affordable photographic equipment and
the domestication of digital manipulation software has made it all too easy for
doctored images to rapidly reach an international audience via the internet, imposing
a skewed, but nonetheless very powerful, adaptation of testimony. 


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