Category Archives: 1 Documentary in the gallery space

Project: The documentary project

Photovoice is an organisation that gives a voice to disadvantaged and marginalised communities through photography at home and abroad. The New Londoners project is an interesting example of what community based projects can achieve. Through the publication of a book to carry the message that immigration can be a positive and rewarding experience, they have managed to humanise their experience beyond the mere statistics and negativity that we are used to seeing. The images that the photographers chose to show reflected a wide variety of interpretations of what being in a new home meant to them.

Kingsmead Eyes It seems that the link given in the course notes goes somewhere completely different. The link above goes to the project web page. I suspect the original and the new page have merged.

The idea behind the project reinforces the concept of collaborative projects involving the whole community, children and parents. As a lesson in communication amongst a diverse ethnic group appears to have been successful with the involvement of renowned photographers and teachers giving the children a real sense of purpose. The main project is presented as a video with an audio commentary by the children themselves. some reading poems they have written about their favourite photograph. As well as the children’s work, a group of parents became involved and presented their own video and audio showing the process involved in teaching the parents and children to use the cameras.

Crowd Funding: The link to the BJP and a search of the site did not find the article “With a little helps from my friends”. A Google search brought up several links, all back to the BJP site and a null result. A search for UK sites brought this:  and this:  which links to the Artquest site and contains a podcast by photographer Marc Wilson describing his successful experiences with crowd funding and in a video Sophie Giblin talks about her experiences. There are also a lot of links to crowd funding websites and helpful advice. Jose gave an interesting overview in this article for WeAreOCA and although the resulting discussion is now 4 years old, it is still relevant. It was good to read opinions of my current Tutor, Derek Trillo.


Contemplating documentary

Exercise: Reading the article ‘The judgement seat of photography’

In summary, Christopher Phillips (I tried to identify him but his name is too common among authors and lecturers for me to be sure exactly who he is – I make the assumption that he is American) tracked the way Art Photography has been viewed during the history of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its various directors of photography.  I read the article with some difficulty.  Like many specialist writers, brevity and concision elude him and from the list of over eighty references I was unable to see any key research materials that would be useful beyond what I have read elsewhere. His viewpoint does seem to be “metro centric” concentrating on New York and the USA and his article was published in 1992. Much has happened in photography in the intervening 23 years which has had a great deal of influence an the way we perceive documentary photography. However this was a useful illustration on how museums and their directors can influence the direction of photography.

Post documentary art

Open See. Jim Goldberg’s exhibition video gave a clear indication that he was actively engaging his audience with innovative folding books to tell a story. The Open See exhibition website showed a slowly scrolling matrix of  exhibition images from which it was clear to see the extent of his work but not necessarily the detail. I found the presentation of his images with texts written by his subject engaging and powerful. As a documentary project in the gallery it seemed to have worked although there is of course no substitute for seeing the exhibition itself to make an informed judgement.

Post Documentary Photography, Art and Ethics by Ine Gevers

Summary of key points:

  • The boundaries between documentary and art photography have become indistinct and a new term  for the ‘documentary as art’, may have to be found.
  • There is a perceived conflict between the ethics of the objectivity of documentary photography and the aesthetics of art photography. Can a documentary image be beautiful and can a beautiful image be a document?
  • Historically, the objectivity of documentary photography has always been questioned, especially in the west when looking at the way governments have used photography to reinforce dominant ideologies. Photography has been seen as a servant of repression and as propaganda and indoctrination. Any medium which can be used for goodwill always be used oppressively by those with extreme ideas to communicate. The writer is talking about  representation being in crisis but hasn’t this always been the case at one time or another throughout modern history?
  • The writer cites examples of use and misuse of the photographic image giving the the examples of Rosler and Sekula. In attempts to explain how documentary can be of value especially if  the people themselves are involved in the expression of their problems – to report, rather than be the object of the report by a third party.
  • On ethics and aesthetics, the writer quoted philosophers and ideas with which I was not familiar and found too complex to understand (within the time constraints of this course anyway) but the final paragraph was understandable. It was about autonomy and as such, the right of the photographer to express himself and to allow the viewer to interpret that expression in their own way.


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.