Research point – Sectarian Murder

Paul Seawright grew up in Belfast during the period euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. During 1987/8 he made a series of images based on visits to murder sites or body-dump sites from the sectarian killings of the early 1970s. Seawright did not give them a title but reviewers always refer to them as the ‘Sectarian Murder’ series (Kelly, quoted in (n.d.))

Each work in the series is a combination of image and text. The image is a colour view of the site from a low viewpoint, as if giving a victim’s-eye view. Lighting is a controlled combination of daylight and obvious fill-flash, mimicking the lighting of a scene-of-crime officer’s photograph. The text is precis’ed from contemporary news reports of the murder, edited to exclude the victim’s name or any indication of his religion.

The text goes beyond simple captioning; it is essential to the understanding of the image which would be meaningless and rather banal without it. Taken together, particularly if seen as a group, there is a powerful message giving the viewer some insight of what it was like to live through the period. In removing any reference to the religion of the victim (which was the defining characteristic in what was essentially a tribal conflict) Seawright emphasises that these were innocent bystanders caught up in something terrible.

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

This quotation from the course notes begs the question of whether there are boundaries between documentary and art, or any other genres of photography. I do not believe the terms ‘documentary’ and ‘art’ are mutually exclusive. Meyerowitz’s Ground Zero images, for instance, fall into both genres.

Documentary photography has (or, in my opinion, should have) characteristics of factual accuracy, objectivity and explanation. Its natural home is the newspaper or magazine. Characterisation as art implies acceptance of the work by ‘the art-world’ on whatever criteria; its natural home may be the gallery wall. Publication in book form is, perhaps, a halfway house.

Seawright discusses his work (he does not specifically refer to Sectarian Murder) in in interview on the Imperial war Museum channel of Vimeo (Seawright (n.d.)) in which he draws a distinction between journalism and art photography. He describes his work as art and sees the distinction in terms of how quickly a piece ‘gives up its meaning’ or how much work the viewer has to do to understand the narrative of the piece. In his view, if a piece is too explicit then it becomes journalism; if it is too ambiguous then it is meaningless. The ‘holy grail’ is a piece that gives up its meaning, but slowly. The viewer has to work for understanding but will achieve it.

Viewing this video has helped me with my own queries about the nature of art. My new working-definition distinction has four cases. If a piece has no meaning, it is neither art nor journalism, merely an image. If it has alleged meaning but is impossible to understand, then it is obscurantism rather than art. If it has meaning that is explicit, it is journalism. If it has meaning that the viewer must work for (but can extract) then it is art. Simplistic, I know, and it will need tweaking for genres other than documentary, but it is a good start.

Sectarian Murders may not be strictly documentary (or journalistic) but stands at one remove from documentary. We are not seeing the murders or their immediate aftermath. Seawright was working 15 years after the event, so we see the site subject to whatever changes have occurred in the intervening period, and sanitised by the effluxion of time. It is the text that brings the meaning back – or brings new meaning. These are images for the gallery wall (and have been exhibited over 20 times since 1988 (Seawright 2013)) and, therefore have to be considered as art rather than journalism.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

This is a wider question than the first one, but still makes the unchallenged assumption that there is a difference between documentary and art. As noted above, I do not consider the two as mutually exclusive.

The narrative does not change. The context does. Viewing a piece as an artwork rather than as documentary does not change its intrinsic meaning, but will affect the nature of the consideration that a viewer gives to it.

References (n.d.). Paul Seawright. Sectarian Murder (1988) – Hyman Collection. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Seawright, P. (n.d.). Sectarian Murder. [online] Paul Seawright. Available at: [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Seawright, P. (2013). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [online] Vimeo. Available at: [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].


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