CAN 1 Research point 4.1

How does Paul Seawright’s work Sectarian Murder challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

An exciting thing about art, and I think the way people engage with art, is that the construction of meaning is not done by me, it’s done by the person looking at the artwork, and you must leave space for that to happen; if you don’t then you really are back to an editorial picture in a magazine that has to function in a different way.
– Paul Seagrass (Imperial War Museums, 2013)

For me the most striking thing about Paul Seawright’s images of the sites of sectarian murders is the extreme ordinariness of the locations. The dissonance between the mundanity of these places and the brutality of the events described in the accompanying newspaper texts brings home the shocking fact that these things took place not in sites that looked like a warzone but ones that resemble any ordinary suburban environment.

Seawright explains (Imperial War Museums, 2013) that his aim with the project was to achieve precisely this kind of space for contemplation, to produce something that draws people in and “gives up its meaning slowly”. He seeks to find a position between the works being too explicit, in the manner of photojournalism, and too ambiguous, which he says would ultimately make them meaningless.

Does defining a piece of documentary photography as art change its meaning? Certainly in this case the answer is yes. Seawright’s photographs would have none of their impact if they were presented without the accompanying texts, which form a vital part of the context in which we understand them. Their art gallery location similarly signals that the images have a significance beyond their internal context – a significance that the viewer is invited to decipher.

References and resources

Imperial War Museums (2013) Catalyst: Paul Seawright. Available at https://vimeo.com/76940827 [accessed 30.04.18]
Seawright, P. (1988) Sectarian Murder. Available at http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian [accessed 30.04.18]