Part 5 New forums for documentary – The real in the 20th century photograph

Project: Documentary in the gallery space

Exercise: Reading the Cruel and Tender brochure and listening to interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Fazal Sheikh.

Rather than the feared demise in the volume and value of Documentary photography which was anticipated at the turn of the millennium as the print media’s funds and circulation declined, it would appear that Documentary as a genre is thriving.

Cruel and Tender, Tate Modern’s first photographic exhibition shown in 2003 pointed the the way forward, moving documentary decisively  into the gallery space. It seems (with such a large selection of work) as if there was a definite intention to reintroduce documentary, historical and contemporary to a new audience, or at least to an audience that had shifted from print media to the gallery and the internet.

Rineke Dijkstra made several interesting points in her interview. The first was how she thought that the sitter’s reaction to the camera had changed over time. She said that she thought people were more relaxed in front of the camera in past times because they were not aware of the how powerful the images could be. Contemporary sitters will almost certainly aware of what the camera could tell about them and maybe were on edge or could ‘play’ to the camera. She explained that is why she felt she had to isolate her subjects, not only to remove distractions from the sitter but also to isolate the situation to make it easier for the viewer to identify with it. She also talked about her intentions on the showing of the two series, Bullfighters and Mothers saying that originally she didn’t think about displaying the aggressive and nurturing traits in men and women together explaining that she thought it was a cliché. However it was my thought that perhaps, given the intention of the gallery to widen the appeal of Documentary as Art, perhaps they used this cliché to good effect.

Fazal Sheikh also referred to the importance of isolating his sitters as portrait subjects, but also that they remain in the context of their situation. His motivation for revisiting the area over several years was to correct what he saw as the misrepresentation  of their situation i.e. the portrayal of the Somali refugees as starving malnourished communities in desert camps. He was also keen to explain the importance of using text with his images to explain the complexities of their situations and that sometimes text and image together had a greater value than either in isolation. This extended form of documentary which gets to tell a complete story over time is a valuable means of communication, especially in the gallery space where there is room to display the work effectively and in which the audience is already actively engaged by wanting to  be there and spend time immersed in the story.


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