Whilst speaking of documentary within the twenty-first century, Martha Rosler claimsthat it ‘is undergoing profound challenges from multiple sources, on social, political,and ethical grounds.’1 She believes that, ‘these challenges, which radicallyundermine photography’s fundamental claim to a unique capacity to offer directinsight into the real, have produced something of a crisis amongst artists andintellectuals and troubled some in journalism and the legal professions, if not others inthe wider audience.’2 I aim to address how artists and photographers — namely,Roland Barthes, John Grierson, and Martha Rosler — have questioned andchallenged the assumption that photographs provided a truthful representation ofwhat was before the lens. The importance of which to do so has been to highlight theuse of sensationalism and voyeurism, by documentarians and photojournalists, in theavoidance to acknowledge truth value, as well as to underline the ‘dichotomies ofaccuracy and aesthetics..
.by which we have come to judge the worth of documentaryimagery.’3 I will also touch upon the ways in which the burgeoning sub-genre ofstreet-photography encourages photographer advocacy and self-projection andinvites the viewer to subjectively receive the image, thus encouraging questionabledoubt 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 temporalhallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “itis not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”) : a mad image, chafed byreality.
4 It is the assumed truth value of photography and film — demonstrated by itsabundant use within pedagogy, law enforcement, the mass media, and the home —which has propelled the genre deep into the realms of power and influence andcaused both mediums to become ‘greatly effective vehicles for reportage andcommentary.’5 Social documentary, characterised by it’s ostensible claims oftestimony, is the one sub-genre of photography in which questions of social powerare raised. In March 1997, Middle America were informed that ‘Documentary filmmakers have to manipulate reality in order to make their art, even if that means 6exploiting 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 idea1 Martha Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, in Decoys and Disruptions: selected writings, 1975 – 2001, p.207-2082 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.207-2083 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.207-2084 Roland Barthes, ‘Madness, Pity’, in Camera Lucida, p.1155 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.
207-208 6 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.210 2 that aestheticism and artfulness are ranked more highly, in terms of importance, thantruth 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.’7Certainly, in the post-modern and post-photographical era it is impossible not toacknowledge the burgeoning use of rapidly developing digital imaging technology,such as Photoshop, After Effects, and Premier Pro, widely encouraging thedomestication of photo manipulation and alteration processes. This widespreadavailability raises concerns surrounding both still and moving imagery in relation to it’ssources and as the Western world becomes more accustomed to hearing phrasessuch as ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ it is unsurprising that it has begun to raisesuspicions 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 abandonedany interest in indexicality and, perhaps just as importantly, in the privilegedviewpoint of “witness” — and therefore any embeddedness in a particularmoment in time and space.10 After immigrating to America in 1870, Jacob Riis eventually found himself in theadvantageous position of police reporter, during which time he had access to theimmigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and eventually discoveredflash 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, hiswork is primarily defined by its Bourgeois culture and the middle-class reformers bywhom it was received.
The methodology which Riis employed during his ‘housingcrusade’11 was both aggressive and invasive, concerning itself not with aesthetics but 12with simply evidencing the destitution of his nameless subjects as ‘symptomatic’ . In opposition to the artless candor of Riis is Lewis Hine, whose activistobjectives — he strived to bring forth ‘legislative changes relating to work’13 — drovehis development in photographic practice. Hine already had an intrinsic interest inaesthetics upon his entry into documentary and felt strongly about maintaining, whathe believed to be, an ostensible union between aesthetics and ethical concern. It wasnot uncommon for Hine to use deceit in gaining access into restricted factory settings 7 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.2108 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.2109 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.21010 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.21111 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.
21912 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.219 13 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.219 3 in order to attain primary understanding of the deplorable working conditions of thetwentieth century — this is evident within his Making Human Junk, a body of workwhich ‘consciously produced counteradvertising to the popular “making healthychildren” advertising of the early-twentieth-century food industry.’14 In doing so hewas 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 atransaction with the subjects that resulted in a dignified yet responsive pose’15 — thusproducing an authority evident within his photos, which surely suggests some degreeof photographer’s advocacy— potentially rendering Hine’s images as significantly lesstruthful than those of Riis, whose subjects were mere ‘victims of their terriblesurroundings’16 caught in the act of being so. It is not just the “parachuting photojournalist” who has carefully crafted foroneself the reputation of being highly irresponsible with an apathy toward the lives ofone’s subjects, documentarians are often accused of having an acute fascination withthe misery and suffering of others. On many occasions, notably that of EugeneRichards, documentary photographers are faced with claims of financially profitingfrom the abjection of vulnerable people.
Issues of fair representation and truth valuewithin documentary photography are undoubtedly married, yet Cocaine True CocaineBlue —Richard’s apparently “in-depth and intimate look at the embattled lives ofaddicts, drug dealers, sex workers and police in three inner-city communities” — is aperfect example of a failure to successfully amalgamate the two. The publicationreceived a wave of criticism and controversy on the basis that the (white middle-class) photographer was negatively influencing viewer reception by means ofsensationalism and voyeurism in order to heighten and distort an already problematicstereotype, thus exaggerating the percentage of African Americans involved incrime. 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 ofmanipulation 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.
21515 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.21916 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.220 17 Charles Hagen, ‘Review/Photography; ‘Cocaine True’: Art or Sensationalism?’, inThe 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),2011,https://www.theguardian.
com/artanddesign/2011/jul/26/diane-arbus-photography-sideshow, (11/01/2018) 4 they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant.”19 Contrarily (orperhaps 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 moreaccurate and honest portrayal of his unsuspecting subjects as they rode the NewYork subway.20 The work of Paul Strand offered a invigoratingly fresh take ondocumentary photography, casting aside the the notion of “romantic pastoralism” infavour of an honest glimpse into the lives and conditions of those in the twentiethcentury. Strands method of capturing his subjects — he employed the use of a trickcamera whose lens appeared to point elsewhere — may be ethically uncertain but it isundoubtedly a truthful representation of his unknowing subjects. Unlike the work ofRichards, Strand’s closely cropped candid images of New Yorkers existing in themodernist world leave themselves open to subjectivity without any sense ofphotographer advocacy or sensationalism.21 ‘The penalty of realism is that it is about reality and has to bother for ever not aboutbeing ‘beautiful’ but about being right.’22 Documentary has always proclaimed tofocus intently on the conveyance of an honest representation of lived experience andin doing so, aesthetics has taken a back seat, thought of latterly to testimony. Itcannot be ignored, however, that in post-modern society (although such a trope wasactually first reared within modernism)23 documentarians have had a tendency toswitch their stance when needed, clinging to the viewers reception of the aestheticdimension 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 Thisproduces a visual language between sensationalism, forcing the illusion of truth andsubsequently influence, and ‘its reception by the viewer.’25 Instead of pragmaticallyassessing the image and extracting an objective truth, the ostentatious allureencapsulates 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 aSocial Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy, p.105-121 20 James Agee, ‘Introduction’ in Many Are Called, by Walker Evans, p.
11-1521 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.220-22122 James Beveridge, ‘Documentary News Letter’, in John Grierson, Film Master, p.17823 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.21124 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.
21125 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.21126 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.220-221 27 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.
224 5 In documentary’s infancy, restaging was an acceptable vehicle in the portrayal of truthvalue, yet in modernist society it is imperative that the photographer overtly rejectsvisual tropes and reconstructions, replacing them, instead, with honesty andtransparency.28 This, alongside a ‘balance of trust in the..
.medium of distribution’29ensures a credible transaction between photographer and viewer. For years, due to itsassociations with news photography, the reception of black and white images wasthat of trust and reliability, a potential explanation for how many of theaforementioned documentarians were able to preach testimony from manipulativemethodologies.30 However, in the postmodern era the use of colour, previouslyreserved for personal and commercial photography, begun to seep into mainstreammedia presenting the word with apparently truthful instant “snapshots” of reality —first seen in cinema verity and pop music videos.31 Aesthetically exquisite images ofthe misfortunate working class of post-industrial Britain (Ray’s a Laugh, RichardBillingham)32 or the grisly murder scenes of London (Landscape of Murder, AntonioOlmos)33 have become so common that the public are now more inclined to rejectblack and white imagery as being doctored and henceforth untrustworthy. In terms of the sharing of images via mass media, there is still some doubt anduncertainty surrounding the ethical and representational qualities ofphotojournalism.34 In contrast to the fluid motives of the documentarian, theresponsibility of the journalist is purely ‘to society — that is, to readers and viewers.
’35It is for this reason that journalists often find themselves charged with “selling papers”through any means necessary, including the exploitation of society’s “victims” throughvoyeurism or ‘furthering the editor’s or publisher’s ideological or political agenda.’36 28 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.224-22529 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.22430 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.22531 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.225 32 Tim Adams, ‘Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’, inThe 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 ofLondon murder sites’, in The Guardian (website), 2013, https://www.theguardian.
com/artanddesign/2013/nov/17/landscape-murder-antonio-olmos-photography-london-murder-sites, (11/01/2018) 34 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.22635 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.22636 Rosler, ‘Post-documentary, Post-Photography?’, p.226 6 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 wantedto 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 understoodthat there was a distance in status and social class between the photographer andthe subject38, utilising the medium as a way to document the ‘so-called Other’39 in it’smost natural form. However, street photography has displaced itself from such astructure and transmuted into somewhat of a subjective form of self-projectionwhereby ‘the photographer, rather than the subjects, becomes a kind ofpsychological or characterological type, and it is with the photographer that oneidentifies.’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 inan era when such a practice, of sensationalism and the presentation of tendentiousimagery, is so openly accepted and praised by mass culture.
It could therefore beargued that as the great divide of wealth and social class widens, the practice ofsocial documentary, despite its turbulent relationship to accurate representation andtruth value, has revealed itself to be the backbone to a ‘frame of unity, even if afractured and fractious one.’42 So why has it been important to question and challenge the assumption thatphotographs provided a truthful representation of what was before the lens? Simply,because visual manipulation has, historically, proven to be instrumental in influencingthe masses — socially, politically, and ethically. In addition, in this post-modern andpost-photographic era, widespread access to affordable photographic equipment andthe domestication of digital manipulation software has made it all too easy fordoctored images to rapidly reach an international audience via the internet, imposinga skewed, but nonetheless very powerful, adaptation of testimony.