Documentary photography

During my visit to Arles I stayed in a house owned by the parents of Isabelle Wesselingh a reporter, currently in Roumania but who has had extended periods in Caucus’ from where she published Raw Memory. We met a couple of times and chatted about photography – she also went to see some of the work in the festival. I decided to ask her about her thoughts on ‘Documentary photography’ her response came a little later than she had wanted because she is covering the case of the stolen (and possible incineration) of the Monet, Picasso and Gaugin paintings. An interesting reflection on the conversation today at the Thames Valley Group. Nevertheless I thought I’d share both my question and her response in it’s entirety.

“…In the Rencontres there were two distinct approaches to documenting the big issues in Africa, war, famine etc. One by Robin Hammond for example and the other by Alfredo Jaar. Hammond has a hard documentary style, focusing on the depravity, the injustices etc, whilst Jaar seems to project a futility in the use of images.


I would be interested to understand your views from a position of privilege about whether you think either position is worthwhile, appropriate?”


Date: 17 August 2013 17:07:43 BST

To: John

Subject: Re: Documentary photography

Dear John,

I think both positions are appropriate and worthwhile in a way but:

Hammond is focusing on depravity, injustices etc. Of course, we need to have this type of testimony not to forget about the fact that people in the world do not have the same chances as us for example. I think it is very important for people in Western Europe (who generally tend to complain more and more about everything) to be conscious of the living conditions of people in Africa. It is so easy to forget. Hammond with his hard documentary style provides an insight of the fate of people suffering from mental health for example. I think this approach is important. That is also why I think images from wars and the horror of wars are also important, especially nowadays when governments make us believe that wars are “clean”, with precise strikes and no suffering for the civilians or the soldiers. But there is also a danger linked to this hard documentary style. Photographers can be tempted to focus only on this aspect of life in Africa and hence contribute to create and reinforce clichés about Africa. In general, the public expects sad news about Africa –famine, poverty, violence–. If you focus on this, you meet the expectations and newspapers, magazines are happy to publish your pictures. Jury members for photo contests (World Press Photo, Perpignan etc…) are also very sensitive to this aspect, so your chances to won a prize are also bigger. But by focusing only on depravity, injustice and violence you are actually not documenting a continent but only a very small part of life on this continent. So what is the value of your documentary? How long do you live there to get familiar with the local culture and not react only with your own cultural background?

I give you just one example I witnessed. A photographer I know called me once, four years ago, because he wanted to do a documentary on the Romanian orphanages. Of course, everyone remembered the terrible state of orphanages in Romania under communism. After the fall of Ceausescu, the images were broadcast all around the world. This was in 1990. He called me in 2009. “I spoke with Care (the NGO) and they tell me that the state of orphanages has not changed since the fall of communism. This is realy horrible”, he told me. “Care wants to pay all my expenses to document the situation and they will then use the pictures to raise funds. We will help these people”, he added. Well, you could think, +how nice, someone wants to document the injustices and try to help the poor children+. But “the problem” is that Romania made tremendous efforts to improve the conditions in orphanages in the last twenty years and the conditions are not at all like they were in twenty years (this is what experts working in the field for Unicef, child protection, other NGos told us, this is what my colleague who wrote about the orphanages twenty years ago witnessed). So basically this photographer who never set a foot in Romania wants to document something with a preconceived idea that is completely untrue. I told him things have improved a lot (even former orphans told us so) but he did not want to listen. Care neither as they wanted sad pictures to make people emotional and donate money. The photographer even told me that with this “scandalous subject we could denounce injustice and maybe win a prize”…..My text colleague who covered in depth the subject of orphans in the last twenty years went with the photographer to several orphanages. In one town, he was convinced the children were still in the old Communist orphanage. They were not. They were in a very modern building, small unit with psychologist, play therapists etc….He as very disappointed. As he could not shoot the sad pictures he wanted, he chose to make close up on mentally disabled and physically disabled children. Of course, they look disabled and people feel sad about them. But this was chosen to so call “document” the terrible state of orphanage and this was just a lie. The photographer is seen by many as “a very good photo documentary maker”. As I saw how he worked, I cannot consider him so and I would consider his position inappropriate.

I think to document a country and a continent, you have to focus on complexity and sometimes the hard documentary style in photo is unable to do so. As a correspondent in Romania, I do not want to write only about the clichés people have about this country, so I think a lot about the “balance” between subjects. Yes, there is corruption and poverty (but corruption cases you also find in Britain, France, Italy etc…) but there are also some of the best IT specialists in the world (Romanian is the second most spoken language at the head office of Microsoft in the US), there are incredibly successful Roma (This year, a Romanian Roma actress graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London….are British newspapers talking about this, are we having pictures of this?), the average internet speed is higher than in Germany. So what are the pictures we are seeing about Romania? How do they really document the country? Or are they just confirming preconceived ideas? I think the dilemma is the same for Africa.

And that is where the approach of Alberto Jaar is appropriate and important: because pictures should be questioned as much as anything else but we are not taught to question them, to read them. His approach is telling us about the rest, the things we are not shown. It is telling us about who is talking about what. For example, I think you need to live a certain time in a place to understand this place and not only judge it through your own cultural filter. You need to go deeper than the surface and this takes long. That is the reason why for example news agency like Reuters, AFP and AP work with local photographers (and text journalists), who are full time staff. This is combined with foreigners who come to stay four five years to have time to understand better a country: combine and external eye to an internal one.

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask other questions if you want.




6 thoughts on “Documentary photography

  1. Very interesting John….a view from the inside as it were and a very balanced view too. I think her reference to complexity and balance is so relevant. It was interesting that, despite her experience of the photographer in Romania, she still sees a role for hard nosed direct photojournalism…thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. I share Keith’s observations re complexity and balance. There’s also that aspect of ‘knowing’ the place and situation. It informs you of the depth and complexity of history and place, but also how does this ‘knowingness’ impact perception and acceptance of the status quo? I think this interaction of internal and external eye is essential in revealing the complexity whilst enabling an ‘outsider’ to ask apparently simple questions that widen the debate.

  3. Keith, Catherine, I think your views echo mine. Isabelle is coming to the end of a four year stint in country (she is probably going to to placed in Paris, not something she is looking forward to), so has a perspective gained by “being there” and it was that view that I wanted to gauge. It is only one person’s view and maybe another journalist from a different agency would have a completely different one. But interesting nevertheless.

  4. I forgot who mentioned that, but it said photojournalism relies on journalism. Without journalism, the photographs themselves don’t say much. I don’t know what really defines documentary photography, and if it needs to tell a story or tell the truth. But as if we shouldn’t even bother to take an image unless we get the story/message first, then the images serves as a decoration.

    I wonder, if a documentary photographer “document” a lie for money or prize, advertising photographer also creates image for sale which lie about the effect of the product. Every photographs, almost reduce into some sort of advertising message.

      • I like the article. Maybe I am too cynical myself. I have a feeling that photograph is nothing more than a visual illustration to strengthen a message. This message can be a truth or a fabrication. It’s almost nothing but some sort of story telling tool.

        Given the power of photoshop, if the actual photograph doesn’t fit the story we try to tell, we can always edit it. At the end, photography is just like drawing and painting or any other art form but with a different texture and tradition. Truthfulness is a total myth.

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