Listening to Miranda Gavin discussing the subject of documentary. Here’s what I said when the video was posted onto the WeAreOCA blog:


I would say that Miranda’s reasonably clear statement on category is perfectly valid from an editor’s (deputy) position. It is whether the photographer follows that advice in order to improve the potential for publication or follows their artistic impetus and see if it fits any of Miranda’s or any other commissioning editor’s criterion. In other words …. we shouldn’t expect a commercial enterprise to neatly open pigeon holes that fit each of us, especially in a market that is as small as ours and in a tiny country like our own. The publication is answerable to its investors first, its customers second and its contributors last.


Walker Evans, arguably the greatest documentarist, appeared to want to make a document from all that he viewed, I’ve written about him Walker Evans, Photography and truth and The On-going moment, whereas Don McCullin would be considered a photo-journalist – see this video trailer McCullin. Reportage though is given by the Oxford English dictionary as the reporting of news by the media.


There are a couple of things to draw from these distinctions, but the most important is the notion of truth; at what point does a picture of an event, a person, a situation cross the boundary between fact and fiction. McCullin is ‘haunted’ by his ability to walk away from the starving child or the man who has been shot dead by another man, but if he didn’t walk away he couldn’t do what he felt he needed to do which was to report to the world what was happening – in front of him. Of course what was happening in front of McCullin was only a tiny snapshot of what was happening in a wider panorama. That the events that drove McCullin and his ilk to ‘report’, to ‘document’ to ‘reveal’ can only be seen as elements in a broader conversation about events. That McCullin bemoans the nature of war photography now, how it has become ‘pasteurized’ politically is of course true, and it is the likes of him and Burrows that ensured that it would change forever, the politician’s view of truth being compromised by those voices on small pieces of land becoming instruments of propaganda needed to be hemmed in and controlled. So McCullin’s truth wasn’t the same truth as Nixon’s truth which was also radically different from LBJ’s vision of veracity. McCullin though says that he was truthful in what he took pictures of, he never cropped, he never edited the image in the frame – what he saw he captured on film. And I believe him and his truth.

Post Leveson there is a jaundiced view of the media in it’s ability to accurately – for that read truthfully – depict events. There probably isn’t a news media outlet that is free from the contamination, if reportage is the reporting of news events by the media then truth is a difficult currency to be able to claim an abundance of.


Not so long ago I wouldn’t have been able to make much of the difference between a documentary photographer and a reportage or photo-journalist. I still think the differences aren’t necessarily that wide, and maybe this course will open up the crevices that have appeared for me recently. I see my work resting in a place where I can provide a window into areas that I have concern about that aren’t being addressed – and that could be addressed either correctly or in a way that I would find more truthful.


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