Exercise: Cruel + Tender


The 2003 exhibition Cruel + Tender was the first major exhibition at the Tate dedicated exclusively to photography. Rather than adopting a chronological approach, the Tate opted to arrange the work of living and dead documentary photographers in a more fluid sequence. The aim was to encourage the audience to make connections between historical and contemporary documentary photography.

Look at the Cruel + Tender brochure. Listen to interviews with two of the featured photographers, Rineke Dijkstra and Fazal Sheikh. Add relevant notes to your learning log.


Exhibition in general

It’s an interesting place in the course notes to cover this exhibition, as in a sense it goes back to documentary photography basics – one could almost imagine it being in the early part of the first section as a context-setting exercise. Having said that, it also makes sense at this juncture, as it specifically talks about how documentary photography has been reinvigorated through the exhibition format in the last 15-20 years. As a bonus, it’s good to be reminded of some of the key aspects of documentary photography that we have covered during the rest of this course, collated here in a digestible format.

The teaching kit brochure (and by extension the exhibition itself) covers such topics as:

  • Portraiture and how to represent a person through photography
  • The problematic nature of documentary in relation to ideas about truth
  • The role of the viewer and how we are implicated in the images we look at
  • The use of series of photographs to build the way we ‘read’ works

The brochure quotes Charles Caffin from 1901:

“There are two distinct roads in photography – the utilitarian and the aesthetic: the goal of the one being a record of facts, and the other an expression of beauty.”

It also adds a third road: conceptual photography. I believe it’s become apparent in the 100+ years since Caffin made his statement that the distinction between these ‘roads’ is increasingly blurred; many works manage to be both aesthetically pleasing and informative, others manage to be disruptive / conceptual whilst still being ‘expressions of beauty’. No doubt if I thought about it for long enough I could find a photographer that manages to fuse all three categories of photography in their work.

Although I didn’t see the exhibition at the time, it seems that its main success was in revitalising documentary photography by presenting it as a genre that transcended the specific issues and had matured into a valuable form of visual communication.

Rineke Dijkstra

I’ve been familiar with both these series (Mothers and Bullfighters) before now but this is the first time I’ve discovered that they have been exhibited together. I’d say that Dijkstra falls partly into the third category mentioned above, as in there’s a conceptual foundation underpinning the documentary work.

There were two interesting things I took away from Dijkstra’s decision to juxtapose these two sets of images, and in some ways they both raise wider points about good documentary photography:

  • Their similarities:
    • Not just aesthetically…
    • … but also thematically (people in the aftermath of scary, life-changing, maybe even life-threatening situations)
    • From this I took the value in having a distinctive personal voice
  • How they subvert clichés:
    • The ‘man = fighter’ and ‘woman = nurturer’ clichés are recognised by Dijkstra but she points out that in both cases she is showing another side to the stereotype
    • The men are not macho but looking slightly shaken, ill-at-ease
    • The women don’t look like natural born mothers but look similarly unsettled and in some cases quite petrified
    • From this I took the importance of presenting the less obvious, less normally-seen side of situations

Fazal Sheikh

Sheikh is perhaps more of a traditional documentarian in that he eschews the kind of conceptual artifice that makes Dijkstra’s work so striking (but also a little un-documentary, if that makes sense). Sheikh’s work is based on being embedded in situations and returning to his subjects over time. He does this to achieve more natural and ‘real’ images once any feelings of mistrust have dissolved. He’s also surprisingly democratic in how much he lets the subjects drive how they are represented.

Abdia Abdi Khalil and her son Hameed, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992.jpg
Abdia Abdi Khalil and her son Hameed, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1992 by Fazal Sheikh

His approach underlines the complexities of real-life situations and the necessary simplification that documentary photography generally imposes. It comes across that seeing his work in an exhibition (or maybe a book) format would provide the depth and context necessary to see his subjects as individuals rather than just representatives / metonyms.


Cruel + Tender https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/CruelTender.pdf (accessed 21/11/2016)

Rineke Dijkstra http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/rineke-dijkstra-cruel-and-tender (accessed 21/11/2016)

Fazal Sheikh http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/fazal-sheikh-cruel-and-tender (accessed 21/11/2016)


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