This exercise asks that the student read three critical viewpoint essays on photography, and answer a series of questions. The viewpoints are those of: Martha Rosler, Susan Sontag and Abigail Solomon-Godeau (essays are referenced below).
Do you think that Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine?
Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were photographers that used the camera as a tool in the argument for social reform. In her essay, Rosler acknowledges their intent by describing, “the meliorism of Riis, Lewis Hine, and others involved in social-work propagandizing… for the rectification of wrongs”. However, Rosler suggests that the reformers were naïve to think that their work was simply highlighting the need for social reform, when in fact they “did not perceive those wrongs as fundamental to the social system that tolerated them”. Ultimately, Rosler believes that the reformers were aiding the argument for charity, “and their appeals were often meant to awaken the self-interest of the privileged…. to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below, an argument imbedded in a matrix of Christian ethics.”
Rosler presents a strong and insightful argument against the reformers aiding in the preservation of the social classes through the promotion and provision of charity. However I don’t entirely agree with her, as I feel that social change cannot come about without initial awareness of the prevailing social issues. This awareness has to be communicated in some shape or form. I believe to a certain degree that Rosler is playing the devil’s advocate in the construction of her argument.
Can photojournalism be exploitative or patronizing?
The answer to this question really lies in the motivation of the photographer. Does the photographer, have the best interests of the subject at heart, or is their sole purpose financial reward and public esteem? Rosler presents this same thought, citing “exoticism, tourism, voyeurism…trophy hunting-and careerism” as being the motivation for many photographers. “Why is the Bowery so magnetic to documentarian?”, a question Rosler asks, knowing that the possibility of uncovering some new plight of the less fortunate is now far from likely, “is no longer possible to…help ‘drunk’ and down-and-outers or ‘expose’ their dangerous existence.”
Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run?
The answer is hinged on who benefits. Are the beneficiaries just the photographer, publisher, gallery, etc.? Or does the subject benefit? When speaking about the continued desire by photographers to photograph the Bowery, Rosler refers to subjects as “the victims of the camera”. This depiction of the subject as a victim raises interesting moral questions for photographers.
Can photography change situations?
I believe that photography can bring about change, and I feel that Martha Rosler believes it can too. Eugene and Aileen Smith documented the devastation of the Minamata village in Japan by the Chisso chemical plant. The victim’s (sometimes violent) campaign eventually gained successful redress. A highly edited version of the Smiths exposé appeared in the American magazine, Camera 35. The magazine’s editor, Jim Hughes, ran the article as, “Our Man of the Year”, giving more weight to the work of Eugene Smith as opposed to the plight of Minamata victims. Rosler states in the footnotes of her essay, that although she neither agrees nor disagrees with Eugene Smith’s photographic style, she does feel that “the Smith’s work at Minamata evidently was important in rallying support for the struggle throughout Japan”. For me, that is a clear admission by Rosler as to the possibility of photography as an instrument of change.
Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change?
To answer this question, my research took me a little further than the three essays. In the article, Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media, David Campbell writes that during the Bosnian conflict, the BBC’s own “guidelines about what could and could not be shown in news reports effectively prevented images capable of representing the nature and extent of the ethnic cleaning from making it to the screen.” This led to the BBC’s own correspondent, Martin Bell, publicly declaring that he was unable to report on the reality of the conflict.
I don’t believe in the use of disturbing material just for the sake of using disturbing material. But if the images are necessary to communicate the reality of a situation, then I must agree with the materials use. Campbell endorses Ashrf Rushdy view that “images of terror – used responsibly – can foster a climate in which terror is no longer tolerated”
Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses?
Giving the example of Don McCullin’s images of starving Biafrans in the 1970’s as having less impact than the images of starvation in India by Werner Bischof made twenty years earlier, Sontag argues that the moral impact of disturbing and graphic images lessens with continued exposure. Sontag traces her own experience of the graphic image back to when, as a twelve year old, she was looking at a book containing photographs of victims of the holocaust. “Nothing I have seen in photographs or in real life ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.” Drawing on my own experiences, I would have to agree with Sontag’s view. There are certain types of images that I find to have a greater or lesser impact than others. For example, I feel indifferent to certain charity appeals. The images used may be unique to a particular region, conflict or campaign, but the image content remain generic. The images often act like product advertisements, where the constant bombardment awakens in the viewer the ability to switch off and ignore. Sontag describes how “at the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After thirty years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”
Do you need to be an insider to produce a successful documentary project?
In the essay Inside/Out, Solomon-Godeau presents both the insider and outsider view of documentary photography. Solomon-Godeau regards Nan Goldin’s series, Ballad of Sexual Dependency, as the perfect example of the insider position. Goldin has a deep personal relationship to the subject matter, and at times is the subject. Solomon-Godeau describes the images as being of a “confessional” nature, which allows the viewer to assume an intimate relationship to the photographer and subject.
The outsider position is explained using Sontag’s view of Diane Arbus’s work. She believes Arbus objectifies her subjects (many of her photographs depict people on the fringes of society), and removes the possibility of the viewer feeling any empathy for them.
Solomon-Godeau describes a third possibility, where the romantic tradition of the alienated artist, is perceived to guarantee the artist’s integrity and reveal truth. She cites Robert Frank’s The Americans as such an example, and confirms that while revealing a level of truth, it is not definitive. The question that Solomon-Godeau ultimately presents is whether truth and reality can ever be properly represented by photography, or indeed any other medium. It seems to me, that there are no definitive answers or even definitive questions. Do you need to be an insider to produce a successful documentary project? The answer, I don’t know, but what defines the success of a project? The photographer, the subject and the viewer may all measure the success of a project differently. As a viewer, I bring my own experiences and preconceptions to the act of viewing an image, regardless of what the photographer has intended. As a photographer, I believe that I have a responsibility to both the subject and viewer, and to deliver my intended message within a reasonable margin of accuracy. At the most basic level, I see the insider/outsider approaches to documentary photography, as a tool, in much the same way a writer will tell a story from a point of view of the first person or third person.
La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press
Rosler, M. (1981) In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography). [online] Available from: http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf [Accessed: 27 November 2014]
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books
Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Books: Hamish Hamilton
Rushdy, A. (2000) Exquisite Corpse, Transition 83
Campbell, D. (2004) Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media [online] Available from: https://www.david-campbell.org/wp-content/documents/Horrific_Blindness.pdf [Accessed: 27 November 2014]