Research point: Reflexivity and authorship

Before I write up the research point on ‘a sense of place’, I want to capture some thoughts on the subject that precedes it in the course notes: reflexivity and authorship.

This sits well between the book review I just did on Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (2010), in particular its concept of ‘mental modelling’, and the research point that follows, and I feel it is worthy of a little more examination before moving on.

I am also considering authorship, or perhaps specific aspects or techniques of authorship, as a critical review subject. The purpose of this post is therefore to start getting down some of my reading notes and own thoughts on the concept, that I may return to later in the course when it’s time to pull together the critical review assignment.


The terms reflexivity and authorship are related but not interchangeable – to simplify, I believe that the former is more of an acknowledgement of a state of mind as an input, while the latter is a more a conscious way of working to influence the output. Reflexivity underpins authorship, though theoretically each could exist in isolation (one for later…)


The course notes offer these statements (my emphasis):

“By the end of this course we’ll expect you to have developed a ‘reflexive’ practice which shows awareness of your own perception of the scenes and situations that you photograph. […]  it’s an acknowledgement that your own cultural and socio-economic background, your expectations and preconceptions about the subjects and topics that you photograph, affect the outcome of your photographic practice.” (course notes: 6)

“This acknowledgement of intention and effect in photography, the admission of the photographer’s inherently subjective view of the world, is known as reflexivity. […] In sociology and anthropology reflexivity is understood as the acknowledgement on the part of the researcher of how their own cultural background, preconceptions, values and opinions affects the way they interpret the data they collect.” (ibid: 71)

Oxford Dictionaries offers:

“(Of a method or theory in the social sciences) taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.” (Oxford Dictionaries online)


Again from the course notes:

“The course is underpinned by the idea of the documentary photographer as an author and documentary photography as a tool for communication.” (course notes: 5)

“You’ll also reflect on work that demonstrates how subjectivity, imagination and authorship affects the production of documentary photographs.” (ibid: 60)

(with reference to Alex Webb) “That personal, subjective photographic practice, laden with intention, is a mark of authorship.” (ibid: 71)

I’m very interested in the notion that documentary photography – often mistakenly seen to be neutral, objective recording – can very often be influenced subconsciously or consciously by the photographer, and that a photographer can have an authorial intent, again subconsciously or consciously.

Critical theory on reflexivity and authorship

The rest of this post is a collection of text snippets from my reading so far (with my emphasis), with the intention that I may incorporate some of these in the proposed critical review essay.

Clarke (1997)

  • “But in many contexts the notion of a literal and objective record of ‘history’ is a limited illusion. It ignores the entire cultural and social background against which the image was taken, just as it renders the photographer a neutral, passive, and invisible recorder of the scene.” (Clarke 1997: 146)
    • Reflexivity
  • “Bourke-White constructs a reading for us and much of this is produced through the deliberate use of obvious codes and symbols. Lee’s image has those elements but lacks a coherent syntax. In order to speak to us the documentary image uses a highly charged and controlled photographic space. Far from being a ‘witness’, it is often a director of the way events are seen. In these images this is suggested in the way interior space is appropriated by the camera.” (ibid: 150)
    • Authorship
  • “… the photography associated with the FSA, in particular, declares its meaning in relation to a highly charged and specific set of visual strategies, codes of reference in which the subject, like the history, is subsumed into a larger symbolic role and meaning.” (ibid: 153)
    • Authorship and reflexivity
  • “Other documentary photographers establish quite different terms of reference, although even here we can find the camera dominated by a personal philosophy.” (ibid: 153)
    • Reflexivity
  • “If the documentary photograph wants us to accept it on the terms in which it is given, then it equally needs to be looked at in relation to the way it was taken.” (ibid: 165)
    • Reflexivity

Wells (2009)

  • “It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography.” (Wells 2009: 74)
    • Reflexivity
  • “Despite claims for its accuracy and trustworthiness, however, photography did not so much record the real as signify and construct it.” (ibid: 84, quoting Ryan 1997:214)
    • Authorship
  • “Objects do service as carriers of emotion” (ibid: 98)
    • Authorship (specifically the use of signs)
  • “Facts now matter less than appearances. The old documentary project is fractured into work that explores the world in terms of particular subjectivities, identities and pleasures.” (ibid: 103)
    • Reflexivity
  • “From the 1970s, a stream of critical work began to reject the notion that acts of looking and recording can ever be neutral, disinterested or innocent, and described them instead as containing and expressing relations of power and control.” (ibid: 106)
    • Reflexivity
  • “Semiological analysis treated films and photographs as texts in order to investigate the components of sign systems through which meaning is structured and encoded within a work. The point of concern was not whether the work adequately revealed or reflected a pre-existing reality, but the way particular signifying systems imposed order and created particular sets of meaning. Inscribed within the photograph, then, was not some little likeness to reality, but a complex set of technical and cultural forms that needed to be decoded. Far from being innocent transcriptions of the real, photographs were treated as complex material objects with the ability to create, articulate and sustain meaning.” (ibid: 106)
    • Reflexivity and authorship
  • “Documentary is seen as part of the process of examination described by Foucault as ‘a procedure of objectification and subjection’, in which ordinary lives are turned into accounts.” (ibid: 107)
    • Authorship
  • “The ‘analytical’ approach sees conventional documentary as problematic in the sense that the medium itself is a complex signifying process.” (ibid: 108, quoting Kelly: 1979: 42)
    • Authorship
  • “Photographic images are presented as constructs and the viewer is forced to read the system of signs and to become aware of being actively involved in the process of the creation of meaning. This approach stands in opposition to the notion of the photograph as a transparent ‘window on the world’.” (ibid: 109, quoting Kelly: 1979: 42)
    • Reflexivity and authorship
  • “In response to this apparent lack of either immediate relevancy or control of their own work, some photographers have chosen to adopt (at least in some respects) the condition of the artist; to organise their images in a gallery setting, and to sell them in the growing commercial market for photographs. Inevitably, this has led to an abandonment of the well-worn tropes of photojournalism in favour of work that is allusive rather than direct and that cannot be seen and understood in an instant.” (ibid: 113)
    • Authorship

Bate (2009)

  • “Documentary photography hovers between art and journalism, between creative treatment and actuality, the very terms that the founder of documentary film, John Grierson, had combined to define social documentary: the ‘creative treatment of actuality’.” (Bate 2009: 56)
    • Authorship
  • “The inevitable mediation involved in all photography, decisions about the position of the camera within and toward the event, the spatial relations of it, etc., are what organizes the staging of the scene.” (ibid: 58)
    • Authorship
  • “In this sense, documentary photography always has an opinion, no matter how subjective or innocent the picture (or the photographer who took it) appears to be. A documentary photograph always has a point of view.” (ibid: 60)
    • Reflexivity
  • “Documentary pictures tend to suggest that is there is a reality – ‘look at this!’ – and it is in this sense that we must argue that: documentary photographs construct representations of reality, according to someone’s view, their desire to see.” (ibid: 61)
    • Reflexivity and authorship


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

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

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge. (accessed 21/07/2016)


3 thoughts on “Research point: Reflexivity and authorship

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