Reflection: constructed documentary

This isn’t a specific research point suggested by the course notes but it is something I feel strongly about and wanted to capture my thoughts on. I’m writing this separate to the exercises in this project as I feel like otherwise I may repeat myself a lot!

The course notes include the following definition of ‘document’ from Clarke’s The Photograph, which is then dismissed as “reductionist”:

“Document means evidence… traced to documentum, a medieval term for an official paper… the most obvious of categories, and is used precisely as evidence of what occurred, so that its historical significance is employed further to invest its status as a truthful and objective account (or representation) of what has happened.” (Clarke 1997: 145)

I wholly disagree with this being “reductionist”. I’d go the other way, to say that this is an accurate and defensible definition of document, and the kind of photography discussed in this project exists in an augmented definition of document – let’s call them “documentary-like”, or “pseudo-documentary”, or “semi-documentary”.

A little later in the course notes:

“Any doubts about the documentary value of imaginative and performative approaches to documentary photography are rapidly dispelled when looking at the work of Hannah Starkey and Charley Murrell. “ (course notes: 80)

I only agree with the above statement if the word ‘documentary’ is removed. They undoubtedly have value as photographs, but it is not documentary value.

I really like John Grierson’s very concise definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933); my concern here is that the creative overwhelms the actuality. The two component parts of Grierson’s definition are not (or in my opinion should not be) equally balanced: the actuality is the core of that which is depicted, the creative treatment is the manner in which it is represented.

One could argue that I am dwelling on semantics; I respectfully propose that the distinction is meaningful.

I strongly feel that something as important – from a communication point of view – as a documentary photograph must have some kind of line drawn on where the definition ceases to apply.

Otherwise, the definition of documentary photography becomes so broad as to be meaningless.

My line is drawn at:

The thing depicted actually happened.

  • This obviously includes traditional documentary photography
  • It would also include recreations (such as some of Jeff Wall’s work)
  • It would exclude works that, in the words of the course notes “[bring] real and imaginary experiences together and presenting them in such a compelling way that it becomes impossible to tell if what we’re looking at is real or not” (course notes: 78)

My issue is that this third, semi-fictionalised category introduces imagined elements into events, and even if these are “considered real and true”, the scope for dilution or misrepresentation is dangerously large.

I do not dismiss or dislike this style of “documentary-like” photography – I just feel uncomfortable with it being described as documentary photography.

I’m not normally a purist when it comes to blurring the boundaries between genres; I guess I just feel particularly strongly about this one.

For the exercises in the rest of this section I think I have settled on the term I am most comfortable with: I’m going with “semi-documentary”.

/ rant over


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

Grierson, J (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly issue 2


9 thoughts on “Reflection: constructed documentary

  1. Catherine 01 August 2016 / 11:22

    ‘Semi-documentary’ – does that mean you’re going for ‘semi-fiction’ then?


    • Rob Townsend 01 August 2016 / 11:24

      Semi-fact, semi-fiction – I guess it amounts to the same thing :-) … Point is that it is diluted somehow. Maybe I’m just being super-pedantic… :-/


      • Catherine 01 August 2016 / 11:31

        Where does ‘subjective documentary’ fit into this do you think?


      • Rob Townsend 01 August 2016 / 11:34

        I’m totally fine with subjective documentary, in fact I’d say it’s the kind of work I find most interesting, where you get a sense of the photographer’s authorial intent. It can be incredibly biased, even misleading, but at its heart it is still a view on an identifiable “truth”. I just think constructed documentary crosses a line, and needs its own category name :-)


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