Category Archives: 2 What makes a document?

Project: What makes a document? – Discontinuities


Thanks to everyone who has helped me with this exercise. I hope this summary and explanation are useful.

The brief for the exercise was to post five photographs which have personal significance onto the forum and invite fellow students to provide captions or explanations. The idea of the exercise is to illustrate ‘Discontinuities’. I quote from the course notes;

All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of a continuity. If the event is a public event, this continuity is history, if it is personal; the continuity which has been broken is a life story. Even a pure landscape breaks continuity: that of the light and the weather. Discontinuity always produces ambiguity.” Berger and Mohr, 1995. P91.

My images are here on Flickr

I have posted my detailed explanation of each photograph in the album as the final comment and this will add some context. I hope my narrative will go some way to explain how, once outside the family album, most of the images (in my eyes anyway) become a document or a least one moment in my life story. To quote Berger and Mohr again, once words are used with photographs “they produce together an effect of certainty, even dogmatic assertion.”

Having read all of the comments, it is clear that I should have challenged my fellow students with some less obvious examples. Those that depicted me were easy to understand by those who know me and what I tend to do in my life. Although there was no deliberate selection from my family album, Eileen made a connection between travel and working abroad. The “race for life” picture also prompted some interesting comments, most of which reflected the actual personal circumstances of the event.


It is clear from this exercise how important context is when we read an image. How much information we are provided with, either from the photographer, or knowledge from our own experiences can reduce and in some cases, increase the ambiguity. How we define a document, either as a personal record (as in these examples) or as a public record, it still depends on the context in which it is presented, the context in which it is viewed and the knowledge and experience that the viewer has (if any) of the subject and/or the photographer.


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.

Project: What makes a document?

Exercise: Transparent pictures: On the nature of Photographic Realism, by Kendall L Walton

I’ve read through this several times now and I’m still not clear what Walton is saying. I think it is that we see the reality of the world through photographs. To me that is an acceptable notion but it does come down to the words you use and the interpretations you put on them. (Walton has used the academic’s trick of  making a simple notion over complex.) Also, this piece was written three decades ago. Since then, the number of photographs that we are presented with, the methods by which we view them and the sometimes necessary caution with which we view them, has had to change. Even during the most cursory study of the genre, the notion that the photograph is always objective truth is patent nonsense. Its realism results from the mechanical/electronic nature of its creation. How we interpret the photographer’s/editor’s intent and motivation in presenting us with each image, the context of that presentation, our  knowledge and prejudices, all combine to give us our own personal view of the world. The transparent photograph enables me to interpret the world and create a reality which is true to me.