Three critical viewpoints

The course notes (pp26-27) introduce three important essays representing alternative viewpoints on documentary photography.

Martha Rosler

‘In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ is a 1981 essay, republished in various collections and available as a PDF online at everyday It was not a particularly easy read but with a Gunning Fog Index of 19 it is at a post-graduate level, rather than the full Barthesian obscurantist 29 (Death of the Author), and she does have the good manners to use ordinary English words.

The essay jumps around a good deal, including an extended riff on the subversion of minority groups’ cultural heritage into advertising photography, but the parts under discussion concern social documentary photography and the perceived failings of what Rosler calls ‘liberal documentary’. The essay is written from a left-wing perspective and, in places, shades into class-war polemic.

Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery (Rosler 1981, 176)

Rosler appears to see only social documentary as being worthy of the title ‘documentary’ and, in a footnote (p196) is quite rude about the more general English recognition of ‘documentary’ in all its forms (“photos of ballerinas” … “the inherently racial type of travelogue”). Further, she appears to believe that the only valid form of social documentary is that made by the underclass (or ‘powerless’ or ‘disadvantaged’) about itself. Effectively, she takes what Abigail Solomon-Godeau would later regard as an ‘insider’ perspective, consigning the work of Lewis Hine, Dianne Arbus, Jacob Riis and others to the category ‘liberal documentary’ which she regards as reinforcing the status quo rather than changing it. Rosler is reasonably accepting of Hine, who she describes as ‘careful’ but does not like Riis, who she considers intrusive nor Arbus, who she believes exploits her subjects like a freakshow.

I regard Rosler’s viewpoint as intolerant in general and mistaken in some specific cases. Hine’s work, in particular, appears to derive from genuine social concern and a desire to expose and change the exploitation of the period. If her ‘powerless’ are powerless because they lack the resources to make their own documentary and the contacts to distribute it, then nothing will change in a peaceful way without the social conscience of those with the resources and contacts. In my view, the peaceful progress (if slow at times) brought about by liberal documentary from the early 20th century is preferable to the violent changes wrought in Russia, China and elsewhere.

Susan Sontag

The quotation given in the course notes is taken from Sontag’s essay ‘In Plato’s Cave’, originally written in 1973 and collected in ‘On Photography’ (Sontag 1979). The commentary about war photography should be read against the background of contemporary events, particularly America’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War, one of the most photographed and the first actively-televised wars in history.

I had read On Photography before and considered it irrelevant to my camera-club perspective of the time, so I was pleasantly surprised to re-read it with an arts-degree perspective and find it well-written and engaging.

For context, the essay as a whole is about images and the ubiquity of photographs as a way to understanding modern life. Written in a pre-digital and pre-internet era, Sontag already regarded photography as ‘almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing’. She would have been fascinated by the modern era of social media and instant news (and I wonder what she would have made of the current ‘fake news’ debate)

The given quotation comes from the major section (pp 16-21) which links war and famine photography with pornography and notes that shock value is linked to novelty, so there is a sort of ‘atrocity inflation’ (to coin a phrase) effect at work.

The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity – making it appear familiar, remote (“it’s only a photograph”), inevitable.

Atrocity inflation is where ‘compassion fatigue’ starts.

Sontag also points out an opposite effect. ‘A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.’ She cites Dorothea Lange’s images of Japanese-Americans being interned in California in 1942, which had more effect when viewed in the 1960s than contemporaneously, in contrast with Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm girl’ which had a immediate effect in 1972 when the political tide was already turning against the involvement in Vietnam.

Compassion fatigue or not, I believe that war photography has helped to change public attitudes to warfare, through exposure to the realities of war, from Brady’s ‘Dead of Antietam’ images, through the two world wars, Vietnam and the current skirmishes. Of course, photography cannot lay a sole claim to the change. Before the nineteenth century, war was accepted as a fact of life but affected relatively small number of soldiers, and the civilian population hardly at all. Increasing mechanisation and increasing numbers, from the American Civil War onward, leading to ‘total war’ and the world wars fought by the conscript armies of the 20th century have led to a greater public involvement. With photographs brought back by journalists and by returning soldiers the public awareness was also raised. From war deaths numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands in a single day, we live now in a world where the death in action of a single British soldier makes front page news. From the giving of white feathers to conscientious objectors of the First World War through the sub-culture acceptance of draft-dodging from the Vietnam War, to a current public outcry over individual deaths, I doubt that any democratic government would again attempt the conscription necessary to prosecute warfare at mid-20th century levels.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Solomon-Godeau’s 1994 essay, ‘Inside/out’ can be found online at as a scanned PDF with rather poor quality example photographs, or transcribed and commented by a photography student (Latham).

The essay is a discussion of the differences between documentary as produced by an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’. It quotes from both the Rosler and Sontag essays and spends a lot of time with the rather self-indulgent work produced by the ‘insider’ Nan Goldin and the wannabe-insider Larry Clark. She seems to argue that there is some intermediate position but the example she quotes, Robert Frank, was working from an ‘outsider’ perspective.

Solomon-Godeau starts well but descends into ‘art-speak’ (‘… seems to occupy the degree zero of exteriocity …’) and it is difficult to take much from her conclusion:

It may well be that the nature that speaks to our eyes can be plotted neither on the side of inside not outside but in some liminal and as yet unplotted space between perception and cognition, projection and identification.

My own response to the question, ‘Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?’ is “It depends..”. Both perspectives are valid, but they are different. An insider will have better access to, and better knowledge of, the subject matter than an outsider. An outsider will have better objectivity (probably) and may have better access to the means of distribution. It is important for the viewer to know and understand the perspective of the documentarian, and for the documentarian to understand the limitations of his/her own perspective.

For me, the most successful of the documentary projects discussed by the three authors is the work of Lewis Hine in exposing and raising awareness of the conditions of child labour in the factories and cotton mills of the early 20th century. He was an outsider but worked hard at obtaining the necessary access to his subjects and, through the NCLC and Red Cross, was well-placed to enable distribution of his work to the right viewers.

Latham, L. (no date) Inside/out. [online at] (Accessed: 4 March 2017)

Rosler, M. (1981) In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) [online at:] (accessed 26 February 2017)

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside Out. [online at:] (Accessed: 4 March 2017).

Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London, United Kingdom: Penguin


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