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CAN 1 Exercise 1.1

Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power. How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Some of the most compelling examples of citizen journalism exposing abuses of power have been the videos of US police officers beating and shooting black men after stopping them for minor traffic offences. Rodney King in 1991, Walter Scott in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016 are some of the more prominent cases, and the fact that the officers involved have often been acquitted in subsequent court hearings despite the presence of such persuasive footage is a shocking illustration of the extent to which the US justice system as a whole is stacked against minorities. The credibility of these videos is often undermined in court by defence lawyers not in terms of the footage that is present, which in each case appears to be beyond doubt, but in terms of their broader context – what happened before and after the captured timeframe.

Within the past decade citizen journalism has become a core element of the news universe. Live video footage direct from the scene gives us the sense that we are seeing events through our own eyes. For major breaking news stories these citizen accounts now invariably form the basis of the early reports offered by the traditional news platforms, whose role has shifted to one of bringing together the various strands of a story (from sources which invariably include citizen journalism channels such as twitter) and providing background and analysis. In this they now vie for the public’s attention with countless independent publishers, bloggers and tweeters.

Within this framework, citizen journalism is arguably the most trusted of all forms of media at the present time, when a generalised crisis of trust and belief has spread across all forms of media, communication, expert opinion and indeed the whole apparatus of government, in what has been dubbed the emergence of a post-fact or post-truth world. Wolfgang Tillmans’ (2018) study of the post-truth world reveals some startling underpinnings to this general lack of trust and belief, amongst them the finding that people will choose to believe fake facts that are congruent with their sense of group/tribal identity over true facts that contradict the group’s shared worldview, and the “backfire effect”, a phenomenon uncovered in 2005–06 by researchers at the University of Michigan who found that directly challenging people’s false beliefs with evidence that disproves them actually increases the strength of their conviction. As documented in Adam Curtis’s 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, these phenomena have been consciously exploited by Putin and more recently the Brexit campaign and Trump.

In this post-truth environment – where conspiracy theories about the holocaust, JFK, the moon landing, 9/11 and a flat earth are widespread and believed by many – the question of objectivity in documentary photography might seem to be a moot point. But there are pointers in Tillmans (ibid) to why it’s still worth striving for truth and objectivity in a world in which moral absolutes have all but disappeared, perhaps the most important of which is the observation by cognitive psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky that the huge discrepancy between the actual numbers of people who embrace a false truth and the prevalance such people believe their worldview to have is what makes their belief resistant to change – a discrepancy of 6–8 per cent actual vs 50 per cent perceived prevalance in the example of climate change deniers in Australia.

People who embrace fake truths, Lewandowsky argues, are particularly drawn to belonging to a group, and it was a sense of social isolation and outsiderness that attracted them to fake-truth-based tribes in the first place. The chink in the armour of fake truth is the possibility that those who identify with these viewpoints will come to understand that their worldview is really only shared by a small minority. So it’s important that the truth is out there and that it is visible, that there are trusted sources that people can gather around. And ironically, it may be Trump himself, with his constant “fake news” mantra, who has done most to teach even his own voters – the least educated sector of US society (Silver, 2016) – to take nothing at face value and to question everything. Reliable sources that prove consistently trustworthy are going to be vital for the future of social cohesion, especially in a world in which 3D rendering technology can create utterly convincing footage of Barack Obama saying “Stay woke, bitches!”

Screenshot from Rodney King beating captured by George Holliday (1991)

Screenshot from Walter Scott shooting captured by Feidin Santana (2015)

Screenshot from Philando Castile shooting livestreamed by Diamond Reynolds (2016)

Screenshot from Curtis (2016)

References and resources

Amatulli, J. (2018) ‘Jordan Peele, Buzzfeed create fake news video to warn of “dangerous time”‘. Available at https://www.buzzfeed.com/davidmack/obama-fake-news-jordan-peele-psa-video-buzzfeed [accessed 22.04.18]
Curtis, A. (2016) HyperNormalisation. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fny99f8amM [accessed 22.04.18]
Silver, N. (2016) ‘Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump’. Available at http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/education-not-income-predicted-who-would-vote-for-trump [accessed 22.04.18]
Tillmans, W. and Oetker, B. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Germany: Sternberg Press.

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 https://vimeo.com/162586239 [accessed 25.04.18]
Clifford, E. (2018) ‘August Sander: men without masks’. Available at http://www.bjp-online.com/2018/04/august-sander-men-without-masks [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 http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf [accessed 24.04.18]
Sanguinetti, A. (1999–2006) The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Available at https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K7O3RHJ7TOL [accessed 24.04.18]
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside/Out. Available at http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf [accessed 24.04.18]
Sontag, S. (1973) ‘Freak show’. Available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1973/11/15/freak-show [accessed 24.04.18]

CAN 1 Exercise 3.1

Find a street that particularly interests you – it may be local or further afield. Shoot 30 colour images and 30 black and white images in a street photography style. In your learning log, comment on the differences between the two formats. What difference does colour make? Which set do you prefer and why?

Reflection

Instead of taking 30 colour and 30 b&w images, I decided to use the same 30 images and process them in colour and b&w versions. I found that this highlighted the different readings offered by the two formats more effectively than if the two sets had not been identical scenes.

In the colour set brightly coloured objects draw our immediate attention and become central to our reading of the images, so that we experience them in the first instance as arrangements of colour and form. The images have a strong sense of being in the present tense and are highly transparent, giving the viewer the impression that they offer a direct representation of their subject and are telling it as it is. The colour also helps to give the images a light and joyful mood. For all these reasons they are more resistant than the b&w set to revealing any narrative that might be present within them.

In the b&w set the images are flatter and shallower, and this gives them a degree of abstraction that allows us to read any narrative that is present in them more readily than we do in the colour versions. Indeed, the absence of colour – in and of itself – invites us to engage with the images imaginatively to a greater extent than is necessary for reading the colour versions, even if we are not conscious of doing so. It also brings a sense of distance in both time and space that automatically suggests a narrative element to the images and conveys the idea that they are being presented as something to be taken seriously.

Which set do I prefer? To some extent it depends on the individual images. Some of them (for example, the one with the yellow chairs and the girl with the long red hair) rely on colour for their composition and interest, and lose a lot with its absence. Others, especially those that have a stronger narrative potential, for example Ivor the Tarot Consultant, I think work better in b&w – in this case, partly because it’s easier to read Ivor’s advertising board, and the crazy-face flag on the far right edge has a stronger presence than in the colour version. But if forced to choose one format overall, I prefer the colour set – which is definitely not what I would have said a few months ago when I was still halfway through the EYV module, so that’s an interesting observation for me and shows me that my understanding and appreciation of these issues is evolving. The challenge now is to find a way of making the sense of narrative as apparent and compelling in colour images as it is in b&w.

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]

CAN 1 Exercise 4.1

How do Sarah Pickering’s Public Order images make you feel? Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading?

Sarah Pickering’s Public Order series remind me of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 House sculpture. In both instances the forms are familiar yet bleakly strange, and devoid of any sense of human presence. Pickering’s scenes have an aura of surrealism, and are heavy with anticipation as we wait for some unspecified action to take place. In this the images are reminiscent of scenes in a western where we’re waiting for the protagonists to emerge for a shoot-out.

The sense the images capture of there being no human activity where we would expect there to be some is a powerful expression of the soulless atmosphere of many planner-designed towns and suburbs. So although the images are not what they first appear to be, and although Pickering does not explicitly reveal their true character as environments constructed solely for police training purposes, they speak to a truth about our constructed environments that would not be so directly accessible if she had photographed similar “real” scenes.

References and resources

Pickering, S. (2004) Public Order. Available at http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html [accessed 01.05.18]

CAN 1 Exercise 5.1

Use digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be.

At first a documentary photograph of Trump making himself subservient to Martin Luther King seemed to be the epitome of unlikelihood, but as I worked on the image several things occurred to me that made me realise it wasn’t completely impossible. In the first place, Trump does in fact use grooming as a power game. During the official visit to the US of French President Macron last week, an image of Trump brushing “dandruff” from Macron’s shoulder was widely circulated on social media with an accompanying quote attributed to primatologist Jane Goodall.

Secondly, Trump is, as documented in Curtis (2016), well versed in the tactic of appearing to approve of and even actively support apparently unlikely figures and causes, with the intention of leaving people uncertain what to believe and diffusing attempts to hold him to account. And thirdly, at a time when dead artistes can perform in concert as holograms, even the fact that Martin Luther King is no longer with us cannot discount the possibility that a photograph could be taken today of his hologram preparing to address an audience.

Nevertheless, it’s pretty unlikely that all these outside chances would come together at once, so while I wouldn’t go as far as claiming that my composite categorically couldn’t exist as a documentary photograph, I would say it’s pretty unlikely.

I took elements from two photographs to create this composite: one of Donald Trump by Martin Schoeller for Time magazine and the other of Martin Luther King by Henry Burroughs during the taping of a 1957 episode of NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ and included in a new NBC News/MSNBC documentary Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media.

References and resources

Curtis, A. (2016) HyperNormalisation. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fny99f8amM [accessed 01.05.18]

CAN 1 Exercise 5.2

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

My response to exercise 1.1 in this module included reflection on the crisis of trust that has arisen in the past few years not just in photography, but across all forms of media and communication with the arrival of the so-called post-fact or post-truth world. The driving force in this development has been digital technology, which has generated tools that allow all forms of media – and especially photographs – to be created, edited or repurposed with ease, and has made these tools available to nearly everyone on the planet, along with channels of communication and distribution that allow the results to be published globally. The extent to which this has changed the way we access and consume all media, including photography, cannot be underestimated. It is a complete paradigm shift, from a world in which only a small elite had the means to generate and publish information to one in which every individual can communicate their message and even initiate a social or political movement.

As all voices have become potentially equal in reach, so have all voices become equal in questionability, in both literal and metaphorical senses. The pronouncements of politicians and even academics and expert commentators are now challenged as vigorously as those of the man or woman in the street, and the basic assumption of many people is that their claim to truth is equivalent. This disintegration of trust in traditional sources has been exploited by politicians such as Putin and Trump (Curtis, 2016) who have discovered that circulating fake “facts” attracts supporters who happily ignore any contradictory statements such politicians also make to deflect and disarm attempts to hold them accountable (Tillmans, 2018).

Where does truth in photography sit in this post-truth world? People who feel inclined to take a particular image at face value will do so; others will never be convinced of its claim to veracity. Photography no longer has any ontological relationship with truth, and this is both a philosophical point and a practical one. Anybody who owns a cameraphone today understands from direct personal experience that capture is just one stage in producing an image, and that it is only a partial truth, telling what they want it to tell and concealing what they don’t. They know that Instagram filters, Snapchat lenses and other simple editing tools can change the photograph into something completely different, and they understand that images in adverts and lifestyle magazines have been Photoshopped. They don’t believe, or even expect, photographs to be a true representation of reality. The ontological quality of truth in photographs has been replaced by the quality of malleability.

People also understand that context is important and that everything is open to interpretation. Thus images from trusted sources will have more credibility, but when the winning entry in 2018’s Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is disqualified for using a taxidermy specimen, we are reminded that there truly are no guarantees of truth. Long before Baudrillard, ancient sages told us that the world we experience is maya, an illusion, a construct of our own minds. Psychologists, too, understand that what we see is a product of our minds rather than our eyes, that gestalt is a learned process – something that Shore (2010, p.97) also recognises. In these contexts, coming to the understanding that truth is a construct is considered a process of enlightenment rather than a cause for concern, so perhaps this is how we should see the issue today. Reframed in this way, the universal loss of trust and confidence in photography and other forms of communication may actually signal the emergence of an enlightened global population.

References and resources

Curtis, A. (2016) HyperNormalisation. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fny99f8amM [accessed 02.05.18]
Shore, S. (2007) The Nature of Photographs (2nd ed.). USA: Phaidon
Tillmans, W. and Oetker, B. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Germany: Sternberg Press.
Waterson, J. (2018) ‘Anteater in prizewinning photo is stuffed, say judges’. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/27/winning-anteater-photo-disqualified-judges-agree-stuffed-marcio-cabral [accessed 02.05.18]
Wells, S. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). UK: Routledge.

CAN 1 Research point 5.1

What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up? What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?

Before doing Part One I would have said that the overarching concern of all forms of documentary photography is a desire to inform and enlighten the public about events and issues that are taking place in the world. Now I would say that it is to raise questions.

I see the distinctions between the different documentary modalities as being:
– Photojournalism presents events as they occur at the scene in an objective, detached manner.
– Reportage creates a more personalised viewpoint of a story.
– Documentary photography usually involves a more extended and reflective treatment of an event or issue, and often takes place at some distance in time or space than photojournalism or reportage.
– Art photography as documentary photography brings an issue or event to the public’s attention through the use of images which may not directly represent the subject at all in a literal sense.

Amongst the various forms of documentary photography, photojournalism is under particular threat in the current climate, due to:
– the ability of “citizen journalism” to provide on-the-spot images of breaking news.
– the decline of traditional print press sales and the consequent slashing of newsroom budgets.
– the increasing use of stills from video as press images and the associated redistribution of emphasis in newsgathering organisations (Winslow, 2014).

An issue of fundamental importance to all forms of documentary photography is the question of how truth can be achieved and communicated in the “post-fact” era of today. It has been argued (Ponsford, 2018) that in the present climate art photography is particularly well placed to communicate truths about events , since it is freed from the need to include only literal facts and is able to address wider truths by engaging its audience in analytical processes that can enable them to come to conclusions via their own deliberations. This less didactic, more interactive process can be seen as a good fit for an era in which people choose the facts they wish to believe rather than accepting everything verbatim (Tillmans, 2018).

References and resources

Lyon, S. (2017) ‘The purpose of photography in a post-truth era’. Available at http://time.com/4650956/photojournalism-post-truth [accessed 02.05.18]
Ponsford, M. (2018) ‘In the post-truth era, photographers use lies to spread facts’. Available at https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/post-truth-photography/index.html [accessed 02.05.18]
Tillmans, W. and Oetker, B. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Germany: Sternberg Press.
Winslow, D.R. (2014) ‘Photo staff cuts continue at Thomson Reuters’. Available at https://nppa.org/news/photo-staff-cuts-continue-thomson-reuters [accessed 07.05.18]