Exercise: What makes a document?


Read the post ‘What Makes a Document?’ on WeAreOCA, including all the replies to it, and write your own comment both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post.

Make sure your reply is personal and authoritative. Express your opinion on the topic of the blog and substantiate your comments with solid arguments, ideally referring to other contributions to the blog.


The advantage of adding the 63rd comment on this post is that one can stand on the shoulders of the wise commenters that have gone before. The downside is the difficulty in finding something new to add to the discussion!

Clarke offers a definition that framed my thinking:

“‘Document’ means ‘evidence’, and may be traced to documentum, a medieval term for an official paper: in other words, evidence not to be questioned, a truthful account backed by the authority of the law.” (Clarke 1997: 145)

(By the way, I don’t plan to go down the rabbit hole of defining “truth” or “facts”. I think that’s a topic for a different post on another day…)

Jose’s original post closes with the questions: “So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?”


Before looking at time and context I want to address the something else. This may seem blindingly obvious, and it has already been noted by Jim Smith, Matt James, Selina Wallace and others – the content is a primary criterion.

To dispense with the literal answer: yes, any photograph is a document – evidence of… something. A more useful distinction to make is that of a significant or an interesting document (these are of course highly subjective adjectives) – in other words, it matters what the photograph is evidence of.

There is something in the frame – a person, an object, an event, a circumstance, a moment, an interaction – that gets triangulated with context and time to create a document. (To highlight how the content is as crucial as the context and the time, imagine if Don McCullin took a photo six feet to the left of a shell-shocked marine in Vietnam in 1968; the time and context are there but the picture might have been of a table, or a tyre). Maybe the subject matter was implicit in Jose’s original post but I feel it needs emphasising.


Some photographs are instantly documents. The exhibition Conflict – Time – Photography  (Tate Modern 2014-15) took the intriguing curatorial step of arranging the photographs not by date taken but by elapsed time since the event in question occurred (moments later, days later, months later, years later, etc). Luc Delahaye’s Afghanistan and Iraq photographs were evidence of what had just happened, whilst Simon Norfolk’s of similar places were evidence of the aftermath of such events, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s were evidence of the consequences. Some photographers are knowingly creating ‘documents’ at the moment of pressing the shutter. So in this respect, time is an optional factor…

On the other hand and as noted by many commenters, a photograph may not have been considered a document at the moment of being taken, but earned this mantle simply by the passage of time; any photo taken 100 years ago is inherently evidence of how a society existed beyond living memory.


Between these two extremes of the instant document and the eventual document is what you might call the ‘sudden document’: the photograph that at some point in its existence becomes a document due to a change of circumstances: the context is what makes it so. Jose’s Gaddafi balloon falls into this category. But it isn’t simply the passage of time at work here; it’s transformed into a document by some kind of trigger event.

Example: a teenager’s selfie posted to Facebook on a Friday night is just another photograph at first, then becomes a document when he is reported missing on the Saturday; it’s evidence of what he looked like when last seen.

The tricky thing about context and photographs is that one needs to understand the context as a prerequisite to correctly interpreting the meaning of the image. Photographs often therefore need detailed captions in order to explain their significance. Some are easier to read than others: the McCullin Shell-shocked Marine mentioned earlier is hard to misinterpret. On the other hand, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother variously appeared with alternative captions that skewed the reading until its meaning became ‘fixed’ with its famous title (Wells 1997:43-44). You can take many iconic images and recaption them to entirely change their status as a document. Berger puts it best:

In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.” (Berger 2013: 63)

One could argue that it is therefore the combination of the photograph and the words that constitutes the document; the photograph in isolation is incomplete.


Previous commenter Jane articulated my thoughts very well with the phrase “every photograph has the potential to be a document“. Content and context are the two key drivers that contribute to a photograph being a (significant, interesting) document, with time being an optional third. As the content within the frame is (usually) visually simple enough to ‘consume’, the context (often in the form of accompanying words) becomes the crucial factor contributing to document status.


http://weareoca.com/photography/what-makes-a-document/ (accessed 16/02/2016)

Baker, S and Mavlian, S (eds.) (2014) Conflict – Time – Photography. London: Tate.

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.


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