Read the article ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ by Martha Rosler in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (p.303). Make notes in your learning log or blog.
All quotes are from the essay as included in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001 (Rosler 2004).
Rosler places documentary photography in a political context, as it “has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery.” (Rosler 2004: 176). She argues that it has a moralistic basis which she differentiates from a genuine “revolutionary politics” (ibid: 177)
She posits that charity is inherently exploitative and patronising to the subjects, and unhelpful in the long term as it reinforces the power gap: “Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth” (ibid: 177)
If I can pick apart Rosler’s opening position:
“Why is the Bowery so magnetic to documentarians? It is no longer possible to evoke the camouflaging impulses to “help” drunks and down-and-outers or “expose” their dangerous existence.” (ibid: 175)
‘No longer’ implies that it once was; is Rosler’s problem only with documentary photography subjects that have already been covered? Is it the pointless repetition (that implies voyeurism) that she objects to? Or is she saying that it was never acceptable but people used to make these excuses? It also remains unclear whether she is criticising documentarians for knowingly or inadvertently reinforcing class inequality – is she accusing them of exploiting, or patronising?
Roster continues in political terms. To her, liberalism is already dead by 1981: “The War on Poverty has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been deserted.” (ibid: 178). What remains is its ghost in the form of documentary photography. So we no longer care for society’s problems, but we now pretend to through images. Documentary packages up lower class suffering for middle class consumption.
I found myself not wholly agreeing with her politically-charged take on the world, in part down to her USA-centric bias. She described liberalism as having been “routed” and refers to the “fading of liberal sentiments” (ibid: 179), and from a European perspective this doesn’t ring quite as true.
The clinging to the status quo is clearly a point of frustration to Rosler, as she returns to it with this: “Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.” (ibid: 179) – accusing documentary photography of fatalism and acceptance of inequality.
A further point of frustration for Rosler is the over-appreciation of the photographer: images of social inequality are primarily, to the middle class viewers, testament to the bravery of the photographer – it is they who the viewer identifies with, not the subject (the Other). I do see Rosler’s point here: one might not often see a book or exhibition about a particular conflict or humanitarian crisis, but one will often see such collections of the works of, say, Robert Capa or Don McCullin. Photographers > subjects.
This idea of a transition from ‘documentary’ (subject-based) to ‘art’ (artist-based) brings us to one of the often-quoted observations of the essay, the two “moments” of a documentary photo (ibid: 185-186):
- The “immediate, instrumental one, in which an image is … held up as testimony“
- The “conventional aesthetic-historical” one, that is concerned with ‘rightness’ or ‘wellformedness’ of the visual image
Her view is that society’s political shift to the right has led to “the aestheticization of meaning and the denial of content, the denial of the existence of the political dimension” (ibid: 188). In other words, moment 1 fades and what remains (can be admired, exhibited, bought and sold) is moment 2.
She also asserts that the age of true social conscience-based photography has passed, and the photographer is more likely to be working from a standpoint of personal interest or pursuit of knowledge than an activist stance, that it’s more about ‘knowing’ than ‘bearing witness’ or ‘reforming’ – citing Szarkowski’s championing of Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (ibid: 188-190). But again she is critical, questioning the right of photographers to judge the imperfections of the world. She is somewhat judgemental herself: “But rather than the sympathy and almost-affection that Szarkowski claimed to find in the work, I see impotent rage masquerading as varyingly invested snoop sociology” (ibid: 190).
This short segment sets up the Rosler project for which this essay was written to introduce: The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1981). It returns to the notion of documentary photography as voyeurism – “A safari of images.” (ibid: 191). Images of drunks are seen as examples of individual tragedies when they should instead be seen as a treatise on the political/social causes that led to these circumstances. One of her major themes returns: photography just shows inequality as a fact of life, and people should instead take up the challenge to change things.
Here Rosler discusses The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems itself. Its premise is that it features photographs of Bowery locations without people, juxtaposed with slang words used to mean drunk. This is, by not depicting the drunks themselves, “a work of refusal” (ibid: 191) – which is inherently a postmodern act. She is drawing attention to the stereotypes and limitations of the photographic medium by not shooting the actual subject – very self-conscious / self-referential. This work isn’t ‘about’ the Bowery, it’s ‘about’ documentary photography.
But how does Rosler’s approach differ greatly from that which she rejects, namely photographing the drunks? The title of the work admits that that her approach is “Inadequate“. It seems that one has to choose between ‘exploitative’ and ‘inadequate’. Her approach is less voyeuristic, yes, but goes does it go any further to drive political or social change the a ‘straight’ documentary photography project would? (In a very subtle way, maybe; the use of past participles – “plastered”, “boiled” etc – in her juxtaposed text does slightly allude to ‘this having been done to them’ by an outside agency rather than this being something they did to themselves – but that’s a linguistic aside that many may not have noticed.)
The ‘truth’ of the Bowery does not come through her images, as it is artificially deserted. So maybe being postmodern isn’t necessarily about depicting a truth so much as provoking thought.
After so many words railing against what is wrong with documentary photography, Rosler closes with a maddening slight conclusion of what it should be instead. She calls for a new kind of documentary: “a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses” (ibid: 196).
How this fundamentally differs from the reformist documentary photography that she decries is pretty subjective, but in principle it means being less of a voyeur and more of an activist. And the question is, 35 years later, did this new kind of documentary arise? Sebastian Salgado and Manuel Rivera-Ortiz could argue that it did.
To bring this whole discussion back round to the subject of this section of the course, regarding postmodernism’s influence on documentary photography – a huge oversimplification might be:
- Modernism = ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’
- Postmodernism = ‘expression’ and ‘subjectivity’
Durden, M, (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.
la Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington: Focal Press.
Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.