Project: What makes a document

Exercise: What makes a document? WeAreOCA blog response 16/06/2041

In his post in August  2011, Jose expanded this question “.. is it time or context that makes a document? Or is it something else?”

Having read through all 44 responses to this post and accepted the definitions put forward of  a document (a record) and to document (the process of making a record) I have concluded that even without context, a photograph is a document because it has recorded a thing, event or place that exists or has existed. So Jose’s image of Gadhafi’s hot air balloon is a document and in 2008 its context, as Jose explained, was a curiosity, an unexpected sight he felt was worthy of recording. The passing of 6 years and the subsequent events in Libya, culminating in the assassination of Gadhafi have enriched the context. It still retains its original context but we can add other events to our reading and understanding of the image. In this case context and time have made this document. Jose has provided us with the picture and history has expanded the context.

Other contributors to this forum have mentioned the purpose of an image and how that may or may not inform the context. For this image we have Jose’s explanation of why he made the image of Gadhafi’s balloon but for the image of his grandfather and the priest, the only context we have is the place where the image is found, in the family album and the record of two men, a soldier and a priest, posed in front of  a wall in full sunlight. The personal history, provided by Jose via his family and the national history that we can introduce once we have a clue of the period and the place, provide the full context of the document. As I have no personal connection with Spain or this period of history, I can bring nothing extra to Jose’s explanation and I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of his explanation or the document. Once again, passing time has help to contextualise the photograph. Time allows us to evaluate the document in relation to subsequent events.

The jumping wolf and its authenticity raises other arguments. If we discount digital manipulation, the image of the wolf jumping is indeed a document. Recording as it does that wolves are capable of jumping. The fact that it was disqualified from the competition because it failed to meet the criteria of that competition only raises questions about the motivations of the photographer, not about the truth of what the camera recorded.

The Notting Hill stabbing picture illustrates discontinuity as pointed out by anned. (Unfortunately Peter’s link to the chapter by Berger is no longer live so I wasn’t able to read it.) The context of the picture has to be carefully explained for it to make sense and  the differing interpretations of what occurred from the people present show how difficult it is for police get to the truth of a situation when witness statements differ wildly. Again, this is a document as a record of what occurred in front of a camera for a fraction of a second and is ambiguous. Isolated and without explanation, it is next to useless. Time in this instance could possibly help to put the events into context but it would need more than one brief image.

So, I have concluded that a photographic record of an person, event or place is a document, even if it gives us nothing  more than itself. Adding context, either from our own knowledge or experience, the words of an accompanying text or verifiable history from the passage of time, all contribute to the making of a document.


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