Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.


To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building


Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc


I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!


Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press


Assignment 5: research/inspiration: Rosler’s The Bowery…

This assignment has been going glacially slowly recently but this week I had a huge lightbulb moment.

I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be inspired by something without consciously realising it at the time. A seed of an idea planted long ago in my mind seems to be belatedly bearing fruit, and it’s helping me to refine my Assignment 5 approach and to place it in the context of the documentary photography canon.

Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

The trigger was reading Ine Gevers’ essay on post-documentary photography, a text that I found equal parts enlightening and infuriating. The essay used Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as an example of using documentary photography in one’s work rather than being a documentary photographer. This distinction, and some of Gevers’ analysis of Rosler’s work from her post-documentary angle, struck me as worthy of further examination.

from The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

I had first come across the Bowery work a couple of years ago on an earlier OCA course, in the context of Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) where she refers to her own project. The concept of using documentary photography to critique itself wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time but has become more apparent as my subsequent studies have deepened my knowledge.

I’ve been struggling to articulate what I’m trying to achieve with my Assignment 5, which has morphed from being a ‘straight’ documentary photography project on social inequality into a critique of the tendency to over-simplification that is prevalent across politics, media and photography.

Much has been written about Rosler’s Bowery project, including a whole book by Steve Edwards (2012) and reading the critical appraisals of the work has been hugely enlightening for me – I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! that’s what I’m trying to do!’

By way of example, the Whitney Museum of American Art described the work using the following phrases (my emphasis):

“In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations.

The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem.” (Whitney Museum)

The Gevers essay had the following extracts that caught my attention:

“Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.” (Gevers 2005)

All of this is helping me to place my own objectives in a wider context of art and documentary photography. It’s reassured me that I’m not entirely making stuff up here! I am, I belatedly realise, trying to work within a post-documentary tradition talked about Gevers and practiced by Rosler.

Similarities and differences

The more closely I examine the Rosler work, and (hopefully) better understand the communication intent, the more I can see some similarities with what I am aiming to achieve.

  • Using documentary photography to make a comment on documentary photography as a representative medium
    • The limitations of using simple images to depict complex situations
    • Rosler herself opened the second paragraph of In, around and afterthoughts with this: “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photo- graphic practice? What remains of it?” (Rosler 1981)
  • Avoiding depicting individuals
  • Juxtaposing imagery and text
  • Using colloquial or pejorative labels
Burnley test round
test image for Assignment 5

There are however a couple of key differences:

  • Rosler’s work was more concerned with the political context of how traditional documentary photography encourages a social inequality between viewer and subject
    • My target is less overtly political/class-based and more aimed at critiquing the human tendency to over-simplify – not just in political discourse but in mass media and more personalised, social media platforms
  • Rosler’s work was targeted at the representational inadequacy of photographs and words
    • My angle is more on the representational inadequacy of photographs and data

Rather than being disheartened that my idea isn’t quite as original as I first thought, I am actually really enthused that I have found a ‘touchstone’ for this assignment. I feel like I’m on slightly more solid ground now that I am more consciously working ‘in the tradition of…’ someone or something. Such a reference point gives me somewhere to come back to if I am unsure, to consider my work in the context of (but not measure or judge myself against) known work.


Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now! (accessed 13/04/2017)

Exhibition: Strange and Familiar (study visit)

Manchester Art Gallery, 08/04/17
Tutor: Derek Trillo

I was looking forward to this exhibition for its subject matter and curatorial approach: in a nutshell, it is Britain as seen by non-British photographers. It was curated by Martin Parr and much of the content is from his own collection. I was curious to find out how much one would be able to discern the curatorial hand of someone with such a distinctive style (in the end: not much – it came across as the work of Parr the photography enthusiast more than Parr the photographer).

Study visit group

My particular interest at this point in time is how the exhibition could inform my current (slowly progressing) Assignment 5. I could do with some inspiration on how to see familiar places in a different light, so seeing work on Britain by other nationalities could be just the ticket.

I was curious as to the intent of the photographers at the time of shooting; were they:

  • deliberately aiming to capture their vision of a country foreign to them?
  • shooting for a more specific project that happened to be placed in Britain?
  • just shooting what they liked the look of, unaware of the context in which the work would later be placed?

Spoiler: it’s a mix of all of the above.

It’s a pretty big exhibition and I won’t comment on all the participants. Instead I will pick out some themes and photographers that resonated with me.

Strangeness is subjective

The exhibition’s full name is Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographer. It’s easy to play semantics but I did find myself checking my reactions to images against the nominal scope of the exhibition, and found the title to be more ambiguous and nuanced the more I thought about it.

On the face of it the exhibition concept can be interpreted as: subject matter that is strange to the (non-British) photographer but familiar to the British viewer. However, some of the content is inherently strange, even to most Brits. Some of it is either strange or familiar depending on exactly where you live (Paul Strand’s series on the Outer Hebrides would be alien to a Londoner but familiar to a Cornwall farmer) – Britain is incredibly diverse for a relatively small landmass. Perhaps this is Parr’s overriding message.

Some of the subject matter is universal and has no inherent Britishness (Bruce Gilden’s grotesque close-ups happen to have been taken here but could have been from anywhere in the world).

At least some of the strangeness is down to the temporal distance: the past is a foreign country. In a sense the combination of where and when may be more significant than the where and who, and I occasionally found myself wondering whether a British photographer could have taken a particular picture and retained the sense of otherness to a contemporary viewer. I considered whether cultural differences between nations were more pronounced in the past, and the relative isolation of an island nation meant that shooting in the UK was much more novel to the international eye in previous decades (up to the 1960s/70s?) than in the more homogenous, globalised now.

The notion of strangeness also made me think of the Solomon-Godeau essay “Inside/Out” and its debate on the relative merits of being an insider or an outsider. The insider can be too close to the situation to be objective, while the outsider can lack the depth of local knowledge to interpret situations appropriately. It’s interesting that a few of these projects were book or magazine commissions where the outsider status was seen as an advantage (the shadow of Robert Frank, the outsider who nailed America, looms over much of the 60s work). From reading the potted biographies it came across that some of the best work came from ‘semi-outsiders’ that had settled in British communities for long enough to absorb some of the local culture whilst retaining their eye for ‘otherness’.

Photographers and themes

I mention Henri Cartier-Bresson mainly to document a rare disappointment with his work, both from a content and an aesthetic point of view. He covers royal events from the 1930s and 1970s, which came across as shallow, touristic subject matter, and the 1977 work was (whisper it) unremarkable – he looks like he had lost his keen eye for compositional geometry in his later years.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Gian Butterini, Raymond Depardon are presented as social documentarians. Perhaps it’s trying to say that it’s easier – less awkward? – for an outsider to starkly capture social deprivation. Whilst this works as a theory within the construct of this exhibition, it is diluted somewhat when one considers the number of British photographers who captured such conditions equally well (Nick Hedges, Chris Killip, Chris Steele-Perkins et al).

Cas Oorthuys, Evelyn Hofer and Bruce Davidson were displayed close to each other, and they had in common that they took photos for books or magazines with a specific brief of showing representative visions of Britain, or particular cities. Each did inject their own personal voice into their work, especially Davidson, but I found most of these interesting only as historic documents rather than great photographs.

By contrast the same room devoted a wall to much more experimental, expressive work by Sergio Larrain, a new name to me but the star of the show. His work had a Frank/Americans vibe (though broadly contemporary so possibly coincidentally) in terms of disregarding technical and compositional norms and capturing random fleeting moments of visual beauty. The fragmentary presentation matched the style, with the images framed small and hung haphazardly.

Sergio Larrain

Similar but different was Shinro Ohtake, whose snapshot aesthetic really appealed to me. Ohtake took the idea of stream-of-consciousness photography to the streets of Britain and managed to simultaneously remind me of Martin Parr and Daido Moriyama. Another student on the study visit commented that Ohtake’s work was the first set where the aesthetics of the output was identifiable to the nationality of the photographer, in terms of the use of light and shade in particular images being reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Again the presentation complemented the visual style – some pinned unframed to the wall, some as tiny snapshots in vitrines.

Shinro Ohtake

In the same way that Ohtake often managed to make suburban England resemble Japan, Garry Winogrand replicates his US street style so well that he makes London look like New York. These two are probably the most successful examples of photographers bringing their home country aesthetic to the UK – in a spin on the exhibition concept, they appeared to be (subconsciously?) making the strange more familiar to themselves, rather than emphasise the strangeness. If that makes sense…

Whilst most of the content is from mainland Britain, some of the most interesting images are from Northern Ireland, documenting the Troubles. Gilles Peress and Akihiko Okamura captured strikingly strange scenes that show, especially with the passage of time, just how other-worldly Northern Ireland could seem to British eyes. Peress used black and white which gives many of his images a timeless quality, while Okamura displays a keen eye for rapidly-captured surreal detail. Both created memorable images that accentuated what an unusual time and place they documented.

A handful of photographers’ work seemed a poor fit with the concept and the content of the rest of the exhibition: Bruce Gilden’s aforementioned grotesque close-up portraits are not distinctively British (having seen them online previously I had projected US nationality onto them, oddly), Tina Barney’s aristocracy shots look overly glossy and glamorous, and the Rineke Dijstra work is surprisingly small-scale (three portraits) that are nominally about Liverpool nightclub customers but are devoid of contextual cues. These may have been shot in Britain but say little or nothing about the nation. Interestingly there was one Gilden image I did appreciate as it did exude Britishness in a meaningful way: the dirty tattooed worker’s arm. I just didn’t see his portraits as successful in this context.

Bruce Gilden

For me the photographers whose work best fit the construct of the exhibition were those who found a view on idiosyncratic British scenes that made them look simultaneously strange and familiar – those who identified the quirk and held it up for examination in quite a deliberate way. Two in particular were Jim Dow, who found mesmeric patterns in the repetition of sweet shop jars and tower block stairwell tiles, and Hans van der Meer, whose wide shots of local football games in unlikely environments made me smile, and said more to me (as a non-fan) about the peculiarly British appeal of football than the usual shot of a premier league stadium.

Study visit group discussing Hans van der Meer


I found this to be a fascinating and insightful exhibition, with thoughtful curation and sequencing that subtly accentuated themes and connections, with only a couple of exceptions (forgivable of course, as it’s all so subjective and a show as diverse as this can’t please all the people all the time). A few exclusions struck me as odd – no Bill Brandt, for example – but I’m sure there’s good reason for that.

I came away with the sense that the diversity of the photographers and the imagery is analogous to the diversity of the United Kingdom itself. The message seemed to be that Britain is – or has been – all of these places, as seen by these ‘outsiders’. Can anyone really ‘reveal’ Britain? Only in parts, and even the amalgamation of the ‘Britains’ revealed in this exhibition is just one version of the bigger picture.

But to revert to an earlier point: is it really the non-British status of the photographers that enabled a particular eye for the strangeness? Val Williams and Susan Bright edited How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present (2007) which is full of idiosyncratic images of Britain, and the vast majority of photographers were British. My take is that it doesn’t specifically take an outsider to nail the distinctly British, although they may have a natural advantage; the British insider can also capture such imagery as long as they possess an enquiring mind and an observant eye.

Finally, as ever I really appreciated the study visit format as it gives me an opportunity to discuss what I’m seeing with like-minded people, and to bounce ideas and interpretations off each other. It’s a really enriching part of the study experience, and I should do more of it.


For my own assignment research this was a useful reference and inspiration source. There are some specific pointers I took away:

Firstly it reinforced the increasingly strong sense I have (and wish to communicate with the assignment) that documentary photography is just so inherently subjective. That a couple of dozen photographers can take the same subject matter (albeit as broad as a country) and find such a diversity of imagery is testament to the individual reflexivity brought to the task. The overriding lesson I’ve learned on the entire Documentary course is that there is no such thing as a single truth. This exhibition was a good reminder.

The main new point of inspiration is to look to isolate small details more than I have been doing. Often a close-up of a small part of a scene can intensify the significance. I need to look more closely for the details that can communicate my message. the Ohtake and Larrain work was particularly inspirational in this regard.


Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Manchester Art Gallery. Friday 25 November 2016–Monday 29 May 2017

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Bright, S. and Williams, V. (2007). How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

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 (accessed 21/11/2016)

Rineke Dijkstra (accessed 21/11/2016)

Fazal Sheikh (accessed 21/11/2016)

Research point: Primitive typologies

The course handbook suggests that we research some of the work mentioned in this section, with the specific questions:

“Can you find any examples of work carried out amongst indigenous peoples that, in your view, honestly document the lives of their subjects without falling into some of the traps that we’ve been discussing here? If so, how has the photographer achieved this?” (course notes: 96)

It aided my analysis to parse out the ‘traps’ discussed in the notes:

  • Romanticism (e.g. the ‘noble savage’)
  • De/re-contextualisation (e.g. primitive nudity -> erotica)
  • Primivitism / infantilisation (projecting a lack of intelligence/maturity onto subjects)
  • Dehumanisation (treating subjects as specimens not individuals)

I certainly found all of these traps had, to varying degrees, been fallen into in the Tribal Portraits catalogue, but I have covered this already so will focus on the new artists introduced in the subsequent notes.

Peter Lavery comes in for some criticism for his decontextualised tribal portraits, and to be honest I think it is justified. He pretty much falls into all four of the above traps, notably the last: there’s an almost Victorian sense of ‘collecting specimens’ in his aesthetic, with the mono palette and the velvet backdrop.

Interestingly, his website explains his objective as quite the opposite of what I perceived: “to make portraits for himself of people he met in his travels and who interested him not as types but as individuals”.

The decontextualisation is explained thus: “I wanted to play down the exoticism of my subjects […] I knew that I was interested in the being under the body of paint or feathers and primitive weapons’” – yet to me the taking of the individual out of their environment enhances, not reduces, the exoticism. By presenting them against a plain black backdrop, Lavery is drawing attention to, not looking past, the ‘paint and feathers’. The fact that the portraits aren’t captioned with individuals’ names further strengthens the argument that these are types more than they are individuals.

The African work of Juan Echeverria has some parallels with that of Lavery, in as much as it decontextualises the subject from their environment and places them against a plain backdrop for examination. As with some of the work in Tribal Portraits (notably Lenhert & Landrock) the nudity takes on a different reading in the studio context; these subjects are not so much being observed as gazed upon.


I found the work of David Bruce to be more satisfactory and respectful, falling into fewer of the clichés. Yes, he uses black and white and that gives the images the ‘timeless’ look that encourages a romanticised interpretation, but on the whole he does less decontextualising and more shooting in the natural environment. Also, he doesn’t produce many gratuitous images of bare female flesh, something that other photographers can all too easily fall back on.

Researching contemporary practitioners in this genre, it seems that Jimmy Nelson has it all sewn up (or is a whizz at SEO) as he is every Google result on the first page for the term “photography indigenous tribes”…! This seems to largely be around Before They Pass Away, his long-term project he has undertaken to capture the world’s remaining indigenous tribes before they disappear.

This self-appointed chronicler of the soon-to-be-lost is unashamedly an art photographer more than a documentarian, and makes no bones about the aesthetic imperative in his work – his pictures are “intended to be aesthetic rather than factual”, and in his own words, “There is no sociology, no statistics. It’s how I see the world […] Yes, it’s idealistic.” (Guardian 2014)

Nelson has avoided some of the clichés by choosing a more positive and less patronising aesthetic than most – he makes the tribes look strong and proud. Ironically, he received much criticism (including the Guardian article quoted above) for the representations being “false and damaging” in their idealised, romanticised aesthetic. You can’t please all the people all the time.

Jacob Maentz is a good example of a photographer that has captured various indigenous peoples without resorting to clichés. He shoots in colour, which gives a more ‘real’ and contemporary feel to the work, and shoots unposed, observed scenes of the subjects in their natural environments.

He can sometimes veer towards idealised, beautifully-composed images and seldom shows particularly hard-hitting or problematic subject matter, but overall I think he does a better job than most of showing an ‘honest’ depiction of these primitive societies. For one thing, his detailed captions describe not only individuals but their circumstances, making this more of a set of images of people than of ‘types’.

For me there are a few criteria that might make a project on indigenous tribes more likely to be seen as ‘honest’:

  • Shot in the natural environment
  • Unposed/observed
  • Colour looks more ‘authentic’ than black and white for this kind of work (unlike the traditional view of documentary photography?)
  • Naming the subjects in captions leads to a more human connection with the viewer, and reduces the risk of seeing the subject as ‘specimen’

The insider/outsider debate

Looking at this from a particular school of thought – that of Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her 1994 essay Inside/Out – there is a fundamental dilemma within the question of whether an indigenous people can be accurately portrayed.

In the essay (summarised by La Grange, 2005) Solomon-Godeau contrasts the two approaches of documentary photography: pictures taken by ‘insiders’ (authentic, confessional but subjective, self-absorbed) and those taken by ‘outsiders’ (touristic, voyeuristic, exploitative, objective, sometimes unrepresentative). By definition, projects on indigenous people are by outsiders – because the insiders are sufficiently primitive as to not have the technology to make photographs.

Thus a true insider’s view is inherently impossible; once a society has the faculties to record itself, it is no longer primitive.

Therefore, the best that can be expected is a sufficiently empathetic outsider, self-aware enough to recognise reflexivity and authorship and stay as true as possible to a neutral observer stance.

One could make the case though that even being observed by an outsider, however respectfully, irreparably changes the community – classic ‘observer effect’ in action.

Thus I conclude that it is ultimately impossible for photographers to “honestly document the lives of their subjects”, unfortunately.


Peter Lavery (accessed 12/10/2016)

David Bruce (accessed 12/10/2016)

Juan Echeverria (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jimmy Nelson (accessed 12/10/2016) (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jacob Maentz (accessed 12/10/2016)

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Exhibition: Edmund Clark: War of Terror

Imperial War Museum, London. 28th July 2016 – 28th August 2017

This impressive and immersive exhibition starts with a double-take on the title: this is about a War of, rather than on, Terror. It is a collection of several projects by British photographer Edmund Clark, all themed around US and UK reactions to the global post-9/11 terrorist threat. It’s about the less obvious aspects of the War on Terror; the parts that governments don’t like to talk about.

Specifically, the works look at three subjects:

  • The detention centre at Guantanamo Bay
  • Extraordinary rendition (government-sponsored extrajudicial transfer of a suspect to another country)
  • Control orders (a form of house arrest or detention without trial used in the UK)

I was particularly impressed with the different methods used to display the works. It’s a combination of audio, video and stills. Alongside traditionally framed prints it includes text-based slideshows describing photos, wall-sized partially pixelated images and physical artefacts such as transit paperwork, redacted letters and handwritten diary extracts.

One of the simplest yet most affecting installations was in the Control Order section the exhibition. The premise is that the subject of the control order is under constant surveillance and denied any real privacy; Clark emulates this with a room filled floor-to-ceiling with every JPG on his memory card from his time at the control order house – to show that there is nowhere to hide, there’s no selective version you can present to others, there’s no covering up anything you’re not happy with.


Maybe it’s just me as a photographer, but the concept of having to show every outtake on your camera serves as a perfect metaphor for constant surveillance (I’m not so sure how well this metaphor goes down with non-photography geeks, however).

This was the fourth exhibition I saw at the end of a long day and my expectations weren’t high, but in the end it was possibly the highlight of the trip. Two things really impressed me about Clark’s work, above and beyond the content itself, and strangely enough both aspects remind me of another photographer that I’ve got into recently, Eamonn Doyle.

Both photographers mine a particular subject in great detail – returning to it, taking different viewpoints, diving deeper into particular aspects. For Clark this is the surreal and scary underworld of the War on Terror, for Doyle it is the more down-to-earth streets of the city of Dublin.

The other thing they have in common, as mentioned above, is the variety of presentation methods. Doyle’s exhibition at Arles amounted to a multi-room, multimedia installation in a similar way to the Clark show, and in both cases it really worked for me.


Edmund Clark: War of Terror (accessed 29/09/2016)

Arles 2016, pt 2: the exhibitions

I’ve done a post on my overall observations on my first visit to Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. This post is to cover the individual exhibitions I saw.

The festival is grouped under a number of headings: a mixture of genre, subject matter and arbitrary miscellany. I will use these categories for ease of organising my thoughts.

This is going to be pretty long. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Put the kettle on.

If you want to skim to my highlights, these are titled in red text.

Discovery Award

Premise: five eminent photography figures nominate two up-and-coming artists each. I saw this in a group with four other people, and we agreed to view all the entrants’ works and then compare notes, including individually ranking the best three and the worst one of the ten projects on display…

Frank Berger

I confess I wrote this one off quickly and didn’t give it long enough to ‘get’ the underlying narrative at first. On re-watching, having had the premise explained by someone more patient, it made more sense. He photographed lorries entering and leaving an industrial abattoir over a period of years, and the (extremely banal) images are presented sequentially in a slide projection. The reality of what you are seeing unfolds slowly. Maybe I should be a little more patient and forgiving with seemingly uninteresting art? Or is the onus on the artist to engage the viewer with strong imagery first? Discuss.

Stephanie Kiwitt

Black and white, fragmentary street photography with a few underlying themes – absence, emptiness, consumerism. Some of the images are presented as split images with white space in between, in box frames placed on the floor. I found myself thinking about the connections between images, not always to the point of resolution. I liked this series more than my fellow exhibition-goers did, and rated it as my ‘bronze’ award of the set.

Stephanie Kiwitt’s Maj/My

Basma Alsharif

This was a combination of video, appropriated images and a wall-sized room replica – and it did nothing for me, I’m afraid. We must not have been on the same wavelength.

Daisuke Yokota

Yokota exposes rolls of photographic paper to light, creating abstract patterns that sometimes resemble dreamy landscapes. The presentation method was quite distinctive – long rolls suspended from above, seemingly to resemble a waterfall. Unfortunately it also reminded me of a wallpaper display. A vaguely interesting curio.

Marie Angeletti

Like Kiwitt, quite disparate and fragmentary in subject matter, but employing a strong colour aesthetic. There’s a sense of narrativity to her images but any story is usually opaque and implied, leaving the viewer to fill in most of the details. She uses masks a lot, suggesting that identity is one of her interests. There’s a surreal and dark ‘Twin Peaks‘-y feel to many of her images. I like the way she sees the world. I voted this my ‘silver’ pick (no-one else agreed).

Marie Angeletti

Christodolous Panayiotou

Four small photos (three of underground pipes, one of flowers) and three urban water features. Unanimously voted the ‘merde’ prize by all five of us. Balls of steel to be given a huge stand at Arles and do this with it.

Nader Adem

A study of people with disabilities in Addis Ababa. He has a good eye for simple, human moments, and captures his subjects without patronising them. One could question why such a (good but) straightforward documentary project was nominated for the Discovery Award, surrounded by more conceptual work – maybe it is recognising that places such as Ethiopia don’t have the same photographic history as other countries, and in that context it is progressive work.

Sarah Waiswa

My ‘gold’ pick for this set (we all agreed on this one) and also one of my highlights of the whole festival, so I go into more detail. And it deservedly won the overall Discovery Award. The series Stranger in a Familiar Land is a set of staged images of albinoism in Africa. The sole model is striking enough for the lightness of her skin, let alone her beautiful intricate purple hair braids. Posing her in the backdrop of Kibera slums makes her stand out even more than usual, giving a dreamlike quality to the images. The presentation made this project even more engaging: each photo was framed alongside a physical artefact; the viewer must navigate between the photo, the artefact and the title to interpret the image. A masterful series.

from Stranger in a Familiar Land, Sarah Waiswa

Beni Bischof

Garish, pseudo-surreal, self-consciously wacky photoshoppery. Not my cup of earl grey.

Sara Cwynar

More photo-illustration art than photography really. Much use of appropriated imagery to build kitsch collages about the passing of time. I found the presentation of one half of the exhibit – images laid out in a consecutive horizontal line – more interesting than the individual images; it reminded me of Martin Parr’s Common Sense installation.

Sara Cwynar


Sid Grossman

I hadn’t heard of Grossman (active in the US from the 1930s to the 1950s) but I liked much of his work, especially his later period when he got more expressionistic and abstract. There’s an inherent historical interest in a lot of the work, though, and one needs to look past that to get to the ‘so what?’ of his work (he reminded of Vivian Maier in that regard). A handful of his images are exemplary though – in particular I loved ‘Pants Store’.

Pants Store, Sid Grossman

Ethan Levitas / Gary Winogrand

This paired the contemporary New York street work of Levitas with iconic 1960s images of Winogrand. It’s a bold gambit to invite comparisons with a great like this, and I don’t believe Levitas pulls it off. His work is more contrived, more distant than Winogrand’s. The Levitas work gets displayed here better than Winogrand’s though, which is presented as blown-up contact sheets. The dissonance between the two parts of the show is bewildering. I found myself wondering how and why this pairing came about. Odd.

Peter Mitchell

I was really looking forward to this, but felt oddly let down by the presentation. It’s an exact re-staging of the 1979 show A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, which used as its conceit that aliens had been studying Earth in the same way as we’d been studying Mars. Photos of urban Yorkshire and London scenes are presented in ‘space chart’ frames. My assumption is that Mitchell wanted to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of the scenes being depicted. The problem is that in this re-presentation 37 years later, no such device is needed as the passage of time is enough to make this an ‘alien’ world. The extra-terrestrial conceit just distracts now. A missed opportunity for re-contextualisation I think.

from A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, Peter Mitchell

Eamonn Doyle

My undoubted highlight of the whole trip. In fact, the one purchase I made out of the Arles trip, aside from the catalogue, was Doyle’s End. The presentation is awe-inspiring. A combination of colour images in grids, wall-sized b/w prints, colour-washed posters, graphic illustrations – it’s a multi-media, multi-format extravaganza.

But none of that would matter if the images didn’t work. Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin works over the last three years (i, ON, End) have brought a poetic, expressionistic form of street photography, and given a sense of place like none I experienced from any other photographer at Arles.

Monsters & Co

The one part of this segment that I really wanted to see was Charles Fréger’s Yokainoshima, but unfortunately it had closed the day before I got to Arles…

Scary Monsters!

This is a compilation of images of monsters of various sorts in cinema. It’s a fairly pedestrian theme for a photography festival in my opinion, and horror/sci-fi aren’t my favourite movie genres, so I didn’t hang around long enough to discern any deeper meaning in this one.


This is a collaboration between three Danish photojournalists – Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selves Markussen – and looks at the phenomenon of UFO enthusiasts. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic depiction that avoids mockery. It contains lots of individually strong images and also works as a cohesive overall set, despite the shared authorship. It’s a low-key, quite sweet set that is as much about faith as it is about aliens.

Africa Pop

Only two of these three shows were still open by the time I got to Arles.

Swinging Bamako

Part retrospective, part contemporary catchup, this looks at the Mali pop music scene in the 1960s. Much of the interest in the first part is the historic context – all black and white photos from five decades ago are worth a look. I found more to see in Karen Paulina Biswell’s smaller set of contemporary pictures catching up on the band members. This show did also give me the earworm of the trip, the impossibly catchy ‘Rendezvous Chez Fatimata‘!

Tear My Bra

An eclectic celebration of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. Some of it was visually striking, like the the Godfather pastiche and the recreations of iconic Hollywood scenes. However, these two sections were also the most derivative and timid of the lot, as they leant heavily on the audience’s knowledge of existing Hollywood tropes. Maybe Nollywood hasn’t yet defined itself enough of a distinct identity – that’s what came through in these images anyway.

Platforms of the Visible

An odd title for what the programme describes as a look at “Investigation as a photographic topic and the photographer as a detective combing through photo archives”.

Laia Abril

This project A History of Misogny, Chapter One: On Abortion is a powerful series, and one which I have picked out as one of my highlights, but perhaps oddly not for the photographic content. The subject of abortion and its effects on women who have them, particularly the dangers in the many countries where it is illegal, is not easy to depict photographically without being gruesome. The images here are portraits with testimonies, photos of artefacts such as surgical instruments, biological diagrams. Without the accompanying text they may not mean as much. However, the two exhibits that had the most visceral effect on me weren’t photographs but physical installations: a surgical chair with stirrups, and a pile of wire coat hangers. These two objects spoke more about the experience and dangers of abortion than the images.

Stéphanie Solinas

I probably didn’t give this the attention it deserved as the premise didn’t grab my attention. It’s a varied examination of a particular building on the outskirts of Arles, meditating on concepts such as memory, identity, passing time. What I saw of it I found quite clinical and lacking in any emotive connection. But as I say, maybe I didn’t give it a chance (it was one of the shows that I rattled through on day three…)

After War

I missed the Don McCullin show by a day, but having looked through the catalogue it features many of the images I saw at his Photo London show in May, so I’m not too concerned.

Yan Morvan

This is a set of 80 images of battlefields long after the battles. I find this genre of (very late) aftermath photography quite curious: without the context of the historic warfare these are perfectly ‘nice’ landscapes; it is only when one understands what had happened in the years before that they acquire gravitas. The significance from reading the caption triggers a re-evaluation of the image. One finds oneself searching the photo for ‘clues’ as to what happened there, but of course in most of them there are none, so it becomes largely a work of triggered imagination. Part of me finds this genre of photography a kind of manipulative mind trickery…

Nothing But Blue Skies

This, a compilation of media and art responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is a mixed bag for sure, but on balance I felt more of it worked than didn’t. The first part is a recap of how the attacks were reported at the time – a room covered floor-to-ceiling with newspaper front pages, and a smaller room made entirely of old TVs looping through rolling news footage. Both are quite an assault on the eyeballs and the mind. Only after sifting through the imagery does one start to appreciate the nuances of how different nations and outlets reported the events.

The second half is made of artistic responses to the attacks and aftermath. One piece that I found particularly engaging was Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski. It’s a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the attacks on the twin towers. I got a bit of a Debord/Baudrillard vibe from watching fictional footage standing in for a real event – the sense that despite describing the events as shocking and unprecedented, we had in fact pictured and rehearsed such events already as entertainment. The other takeaway from this is that it has slightly reset my previously dogmatic stance that documentary must show things that really happened – it turns out that you can present a documentary ‘truth’ using only fictional material.

I am Writing to you from a Far Off Country

Yann Gross

This expansive and beautifully presented exhibition, The Jungle Show, takes a trip along the Amazon. Rather than employing a straight documentary photography approach, however, Gross stages scenes that give an impression of the people and the locale. He captures facets of Amazonian lives in an artistic, expressive yet non-condescending way.

PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy

The Hollow of the Hand is a poetry-photography-video collaboration based on the duo’s travels through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC (this last seems out of place, but it hangs together better than you might imagine). It’s a looping video installation that alternates between fragments of film footage with slideshows of Murphy’s photos with Harvey reading her poems over the top. The overall result is suitably ambiguous in terms of narrativity yet gets across lingering impressions of the places filmed. Once strange sensation I had watching it was that I found Murphy’s short film clips to be like moving photographs, in terms of composition and aesthetic – I found myself mentally freeze-framing when I saw the ‘decisive moment’ in each clip.


Fabulous Failures

The title of this group show is somewhat disingenuous, as few of these are ‘failures’, more deliberate attempts to subvert photographic norms. It’s a very entertaining collection of surreal, playful and downright silly visual experiments. It wasn’t what you’d call profound, but I enjoyed it a lot.


Where the Other Rests

This group show is all about appropriation, as subject I am a little ambivalent about. I get that one can create a ‘dialogue’ with pre-existing imagery and make new pieces of art that carry a different message, but I found a lot of the work on show here to be uninspiring and lacking in originality. As noted elsewhere, I find some appropriation to be too self-referential and insular – photography about photography.

The one piece that I did admire here was Broomberg & Chanarin’s Afterlife, which took an image of a Kurdish firing squad execution and deconstructed it, isolating figures from the background and mounting the photo fragments on multiple glass plates – like a collage where none of the pieces touch. I found this detailed dissection of a photograph brought its meaning closer to the surface, in a strange way.

Bloomberg & Chanarin, 'Afterlife 8', from Where the Other Rests
Bloomberg & Chanarin, ‘Afterlife 8’, from Where the Other Rests


Themed archival collections.

Sincerely Queer

A look at the hitherto hidden world of 19th and early 20th century LGBTQI amateur photography. Gender fluidity and cross-dressing in particular has an enormously rich visual history, but for various reasons the images have been kept private. Sébastien Lifshitz has collected and curated a wide-ranging and fascinating alternative history, proving that the accepted version of society’s history always leaves things out.

Lady Liberty

An interesting enough visual summary of the construction of the Statue of Liberty. Not sure there’s enough there to justify it being part of a major photographic festival though.

Hara Kiri Photo

The visual archives of the satirical French magazine (kind of Charlie Hebdo forerunner?). What you could get away with showing on newsstands in France in the 1960s and 1970s is mind-boggling. Out of the context of the time these images just look variously surreal, profane, pornographic and grotesque. A prurient curiosity.

Outside the Frame

The Cardboard Museum

A self-consciously wacky funhouse-style installation with various rooms containing surreal images and objects in. Like a class of sixth-form art students had been let loose. It would have been a nice lightweight palate-cleanser if I’d visited it halfway through the more serious works in the Parc des Ateliers, but as it happened it was the first thing I saw, and I was simply bemused. It did include the pic below though, that made me laugh.

from The Cardboard Museum


This section picks out emerging talents.

An Unusual Attention

The work of three graduates from ENSP (the Arles photography school). Guillaume Delleuse was the only one to make an impression. His gritty, sexually-charged black and white urban photography reminded me of Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol. Clémentine Roche’s repetitive (found?) street scenes and Vincent Marcq’s deconstructed house didn’t do much for me.

Associated Programme

Systematically Open?

Subtitled New Forms for Contemporary Image Production, this was put together by the LUMA Foundation in Arles. It featured four exhibitions, only one of which was particularly good in my opinion.

Curated by Walead Beshty, Picture Industry is described as “an array of images whose formats reveal the complex and evolving relationship between the photographic medium and its many modes of distribution“. The bare thread that connects these eclectic images is that they were originally presented in different visual formats. So we get prints, slideshows, video installations, 70s porn mag spreads etc. I presume the point is to highlight how images are (at least in part) interpreted based on the distribution channel and/or physicality.

Elad Lassry apparently wants to investigate “what kinds of engagement are possible with pictures“. For reasons best known to himself, he felt the best way to do this was to display large, colourful pictures of dental procedures. Gruesome and fairly pointless.

Collier Schorr curated a collaboration with his near-namesake Anne Collier, but unfortunately I found little of interest in the collection of nudes, self portraits and porn pastiches. Supposedly about “exposed subjects [who] are frequently framed by the formats of the medium itself“, it came across as very self-indulgent.

Photographer and activist Zanele Muholi provided the one highlight of this section. Her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama is a set of stark, dark self-portraits in various states of costume and make-up, often based around her hair – a key cultural signifier for African women. Each portrait is visually dominated by the strong contrast between the darkness of her skin and the whiteness of her eyes. Her gaze into the lens is penetrating. Striking is an understatement.

from Somnyama Ngonyama, Zanele Muholi

That’s me done!

Assignment 3: research on protest photography

As usual whilst working on an assignment, I took a look at the output of other photographers working with similar subject matter. Rather than finding a few specific projects however, I discovered a diverse set of individual photojournalism images; it seems that protest groups are the subjects of news photography more than documentary photography in its more investigative sense.

There has been a lot of what you might call ‘protest photography’ since the middle of the last century, as significant movements such as civil rights in the USA, anti-apartheid in South Africa and more recently anti-capitalism (Occupy) have taken to the streets and given photographers interesting visual material.

There are some tropes or clichés of protest photography, specifically marches / demos, that I have observed (if not totally avoided in my own work). David Hoffman, a veteran of protest photography, said this on the nature of the genre, saying that little had changed since the 1970s:

“We still have flags, placards and banners; crowds walking from one symbolic spot to another; lightly-armed police constraining, directing and sometimes disrupting them; news-gatherers working the same formula of long shot with a compressed perspective on large numbers of people, and close-ups documenting contexts and police actions.” (Hoffman 2011)

I’ve picked out a few of the tropes that I noticed.

Banners and placards

A staple of protest photography, but can be a little lazy and often making the text do the heavy lifting.

The placard is such a cliché that there’s been a recent sub-genre of protest photography that picks out the ironic ones, though this can diminish the effect of the protest somewhat as these are the signs that get photographed rather than the more serious ones.


A more visually interesting technique is juxtaposition, often of the protesters with the local law enforcement:


The word ‘movement’ has a pleasing double meaning in the context of protest marches, so imagery that shows a ‘direction of travel’ is loaded with metaphorical meaning… the very notion of marches involves moving from one place to another, which in itself has metaphorical value, and photographers recognise this.

The cynic in me notes that some photographers chose to depict marchers moving from right to left (i.e. ‘backwards to the past’, as we read from left to right) rather than ‘forward to the future’, i.e. rightwards.

Crowd shots

Usually from a high vantage point, sometimes fully aerial, the crowd shot is shorthand for how significant the issue is: if 100 people turn up for a particular cause, it is inherently less important than if 10,000 do. Again, being cynical, photographers can look for vantage points that either minimise or maximise the crowd size, depending on their intention.

My big issue with crowd shots is that they are hardly distinguishable from each other – the specificity is lost. A good crowd shot usually only works in the context of other images from the same event (or a really clear caption).


It’s been interesting to note that here has been a kind of visual language for protest photography that has persisted for decades. Part of the reason for this is that, as noted in my introduction, protests are generally material for news photographers rather than project-based documentary photographers, and there is traditionally less room for creativity and expressionism in news photography.

I have reviewed my images in the context of this research, and decided that I have indeed ticked off a few of the clichés (the placards, the crowd) but am also pleased that I have taken a few less obvious images, particularly the portraits of individuals.

Sources (accessed 09/08/2016)

Research point: performative documents

We are asked to:

“Investigate Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods and Starkey’s Untitled series. How do these photographers employ imaginative and/or performative elements to construct their narratives? In what sense is the end result ‘real’? What aspects of their work might you consider adopting in your own practice?” (course notes: 81)

Charley Murrell

While the name hadn’t rung a bell, I immediately recognised the project from previous research. Like the Essop brothers, Murrell used composite images of the same person for Constructed Childhoods (2010), but the twist here is that children are depicted simultaneously in an everyday environment and as an idealised figure in media imagery.

from Constructed Childhoods, 2010 by Charley Murrell

It’s very imaginative, and like other projects in this section it offers up a new and interesting way of communicating what could otherwise be a documentary-style message – but to go back to my hobby horse, it’s not really documentary, it’s ‘semi-documentary’ or ‘pseudo-documentary’.

To what extent is it real? Well, for me it may be ‘set’ in the real world but it lacks the core of actuality that I look for in documentary photography. That’s not to say I dislike it at all; it’s quite thought-provoking. But to present it as documentary photography is to miss the point; it’s an alternative to documentary photography.

Hannah Starkey

I had briefly looked at Starkey for the Context & Narrative section on constructed images, and really liked what I saw. She has a very distinctive, dreamy visual style. She uses windows and reflections a lot, which make me think of alternate worlds that her characters are daydreaming about.

She has a knack of capturing a mood, often quite lonely and melancholy, with her images. But like Murrell, I really wouldn’t have considered this having documentary value. Even more so that Murrell’s work, it is detached from reality more than it is anchored within it. Treating this as documentary photography is to broaden the definition to include entirely fictional constructs, at which point the label is pointless.

I actually like Starkey’s work a great deal– it’s hypnotic, beautiful, thought-provoking – but it’s not ‘real’. The images evoke plausible narratives, but one doesn’t get the sense that these are real people experiencing real thoughts. The construct is too… artful?

As this is the penultimate piece of coursework in this section, and the last that asks us to review particular photographers and their work, it feels like I should circle back to the reflective piece I did on how I find the definition of constructed images as ‘documentary’ to be problematic.

Having reviewed the work of Tom Hunter, Hasan and Husain Essop, Jeff Wall and now Murrell and Starkey, I feel like I understand better why these artists are included in the course notes on Documentary… it is undoubtedly important to push the acceptable definitions of a genre, to challenge prevailing thinking and to reach for the edges of the practice.

I understand and accept that all these types of constructed ‘semi-documentary’ (my favoured term) photography belong in an augmented view of the genre, revolving around documentary photography like Saturn’s rings – but I stop short of really considering them, in my mind, documentary photography.

To reiterate, this absolutely does not mean that I see no worth in ‘constructed documentary’; on the contrary, I’ve found some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in recent months in this genre. I’m not averse to the idea of incorporating some of these approaches into my own practice – just maybe not on documentary projects.


Charley Murrell: Constructed Childhoods!__personal-projects/–constructed-childhoods (accessed 01/08/2016)

Hannah Starkey: Untitled (accessed 01/08/2016)

Exercise: Jeff Wall


Read the article on Jeff Wall in Pluk magazine. Briefly reflect on the documentary value of Jeff Wall’s work.


I looked at Jeff Wall for Context & Narrative last year, and managed to get to see an exhibition of his around the same time. Much of my pertinent opinion of Wall is contained in that earlier blog post, but to summarise here: his work generally leaves me cold.

Part of me admires the effort he goes to, most of me wonders why he bothers. As a comparison, I find much more to enjoy in the work of that other big name in constructed photography, Gregory Crewdson. So it’s not that I have a fundamental dislike for the genre, just that I find Wall mostly overrated (there are exceptions: I really liked Insomnia, 1994, and some of his other work that is influenced by earlier art, especially paintings, is interesting).

Mimic, 1982 by Jeff Wall

However, when his work is described as “near documentary”, he sometimes loses me. It’s too far removed, for the most part. When it is a recreation of a specific witnessed event, such as Mimic (1982), I can get on board, as it’s based on a real thing that happened.

But as per my personal interpretation of documentary photography, once an image moves into the realm of ‘something that could have happened’, it crosses a line and ceases to have significant documentary value.

I’m not pointing this out to be a purist – it’s more a case of my view being that that if one is going to invent a pseudo-documentary scene, that there should be some kind of point – communicating a message, evoking an emotion, something.

A View from an Apartment (2004-5) took weeks of meticulous planning and involved people living in the space… and the end result is a very big so what? It’s incredibly clever and well-executed (and visual interesting from a point of view of having the whole scene, inside and out, looking sharp), but… what is it saying? I’ve read a whole essay on this photograph, in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005), and I’m none the wiser.

A View from an Apartment, 2004-5 by Jeff Wall

In summary, I find the documentary value of Wall’s work to be quite minimal. Some of his work is interesting in a documentary sense, but most of his typical work is bewilderingly over-engineered and ultimately quite shallow.

Sources (accessed 01/08/2016)

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Aperture