CAN 1 Research point 2.1

Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?

Abigail Solomon-Godeau (1994) argues that the binary insider/outsider categorisation employed by Susan Sontag (1973) and Martha Rosler (1991) is neither immediately identifiable within the image nor necessarily helpful in determining its moral standpoint. “The insider position,” she says, is “understood to imply a position of engagement, participation and privileged knowledge, whereas… the outsider’s position is taken to produce an alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object.” She cites a number of works, including Rosler’s documenting of New York’s Bowery district, Robert Frank’s The Americans and Chantal Akerman’s d’Est, that are ostensibly made from an outsider position but find “a way to think about a truth of appearance that without prodding reveals itself to the camera and totally escapes the binary of inside/outside.”

My own view is that the insider/outsider element is not binary but a continuum that describes the extent of cooperation between photographer and subject, or to put it another way, the degree of the subject’s complicity in the making of the image. When we frame the concept in these terms we can easily read where the image lies on the insider/outsider scale by studying the body language of the subjects in exactly the same way that we read body language in real life. I would also say that consideration of an image’s position on the insider/outsider scale cannot on its own tell us anything about the moral standpoint of the work. For that we need also to consider the external context in which the image is viewed. The clearest example of this can be seen in revenge porn, where an image made with the full cooperation and complicity of a subject can be morally neutral in the context of a private collection of images but becomes morally corrupt when published on a public platform without the consent of that subject.

Looking at the insider/outsider scale, Akerman’s d’Est is at the far end of outsiderness. Here there is no complicity at all between photographer and subject. People stare at her camera and we can read their incomprehension: who is this person, and why is she filming us? Some take evasive action. What we see here is not a fly-on-the-wall view of these people but their reaction to a stranger, an outsider. We wouldn’t see this side of them if Akerman had met any of these people before or had informed them beforehand of her intentions – we’d see recognition, acknowledgement, self-consciousness. At this end of outsiderness we also find work by Bruce Gilden and Diane Arbus, and this fact alone tells us that outsiderness per se tells us nothing about moral standpoint. It is not until we consider the works’ contexts that we can see the gulf between Akerman’s morally neutral documentation of the disappearing lifestyles of post-Soviet eastern Europe and the morally dubious galleries of freaks and unfortunates that are the context for Arbus and Gilden.

At the other side of the insider/outsider scale we have Cristina de Middel, most notably her Afronauts and Jan Mayen – works whose subjects are fully complicit in the creation of the images, to the extent that the action is staged and is a recreation of the events they document. A similar degree of complicity is present in the work of Nan Goldin and Larry Clarke, in which again many of the scenes are staged. With these works, a stranger entering the scene unexpectedly would produce an entirely different kind of image and tell a very different story, breaking down the collusion between photographer and subject. Marginally less complicity is evident in the work of Sally Mann and Richard Billingham, and to the extent that we read these images as being unstaged while the subjects are completely comfortable with the presence of the photographer, they are perhaps the most truly candid works that can be created with a photographer physically present at the scene.

Between these extremes there are photographers like Mark Neville and Alessandra Sanguinetti who spend an extended period of time with their subjects, gaining a high degree of trust and enabling them to become so accustomed to the camera that the works are almost as candid as those of Mann and Billingham. Other photographers take less drastic steps towards making their subjects comfortable in the presence of the camera, with the aim of ensuring that the result is a fairly naturalistic representation of the subject rather than simply a documentation of their response to being photographed. David Hurn (2009) spoke about the benefits of dressing in a manner that helped him to blend into the environment: “I’m trying not to be instantly identified as a photographer.” And Martin Parr is said to wait until his subjects’ attention drops away from the presence of the camera before taking the photographs that he is there to capture.

This is not to say that a photograph that aims merely to capture the subject’s response to the camera cannot be revealing and truthful. For August Sander’s survey of different social classes in Germany, compiled between 1910 and the mid-1930s, the subjects do no more than present themselves directly to the camera for their likeness to be recorded, yet the images capture the subjects’ spirit and attitude, and are understandably considered seminal works in objective photography.

In conclusion, I would say that there is in fact no binary insider/outsider divide and no right/wrong or better/worse way of approaching the relationship between photographer and subject. All degrees of cooperation and complicity between the parties are valid, and each will enable a different kind of documentary photography to be produced, each casting light on its subject in its own way. No individual approach is in and of itself morally laudable, neutral or reprehensible, and judging the work in these terms requires us also to understand the context in which the work is presented.

References and resources

Akerman, C. (1993) d’Est (excerpt). Available at [accessed 25.04.18]
Clifford, E. (2018) ‘August Sander: men without masks’. Available at [accessed 25.04.18]
de Middel, Cristina (2015) Jan Mayen. UK: Archive of Modern Conflict.
Hurn, D and Jay, B. (2009) On Being a Photographer (3rd edition). US: LensWork Publishing.
Neville, M. (2016) Fancy Pictures. Germany: Steidl.
Rosler, M. (1981) In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). Available at [accessed 24.04.18]
Sanguinetti, A. (1999–2006) The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Available at [accessed 24.04.18]
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside/Out. Available at [accessed 24.04.18]
Sontag, S. (1973) ‘Freak show’. Available at [accessed 24.04.18]