Too difficult to look at? Why not look at this in another way?

I’ve been considering ways by which I might start a ‘critical essay’ for this course. It is a course I have enjoyed immensely and one which has provided challenges from many different perspectives, not least the challenge of how to begin the essay aforementioned.

The notion I want to discuss/investigate with the essay is based this assertion:

“Antonioni has already chosen what parts of the operation [of the film] I can watch; the camera looks for me – and obliges me to look, leaving as my only option not to look.”  pp 169 On Photography, Susan Sontag.

And so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that in order to research this proposition I have been looking at a lot of images and reading a lot of references from authors on the subject of the documentary photograph. Fred Ritchen, Susan Sontag, Susie Linfield, Martha Rosler and others. The list of photographers would be too long to be interesting.

Broadly it starts to appear that there are two camps, on the one side those that have decided, through the need to preserve dignity of some sorts, and also, because the continued presence of these types of images have removed their initial shock value, reducing their ability to surprise and therefore less likely to move the spectator to action and, therefore, an implicit acknowledgement that the photographer has to continue to ‘up the ante’ in respect of shock value, to keep the money coming in, that the spectator is becoming/ has become inured to their currency.

And on the other side of the coin there is an argument that the world needs to continue to document these atrocities, these offences against mankind; because if the world is made oblivious then the perpetrators may continue their inhumane treatment of people, that those who have suffered in unfathomably bad conditions – be they may man made or natural disasters – need their stories being told, to enlighten, to inform, to let the world know.

I am a novice in the world of documentary photography, photographic journalism; I have sought advice from practitioners and read their works and studied to some extent their output. However one thing did occur to me several months ago, whilst reading these accounts, especially Linfield’s Cruel Radiance, Photography and Political Violence – which doesn’t have that many photographs, and doesn’t talk about photographs a great deal – was, and this is perhaps due to the lack of imagery in the book, the strength of the written word. How the word starts to gain primacy, which was something that I wasn’t finding difficult to understand, it was that I hadn’t considered that (the word) as a means by which the spectator could come to the place that the photographer had intended to lead the viewer/reader.

I started to note in the pages, passages that provided the reader a ‘view’ of the event, but not especially, or expressly available, in the photograph. How the descriptive power of the word had superseded the image it was purporting to depict and perhaps had provided the reader more information regarding the scene unfolded(ing) in the view of the frame before the writer, How the writer presented more information than the image provided. How the photographer had perhaps managed to imbue the image with enough referencing material and that, coupled with the cultural, historical and anthropological awareness of the reader develops the image from what was once there.

I fully appreciate that the image is whatever the conversation between the spectator and the photograph becomes; but I am interested in whether when that conversation is limited by the image language skills of the viewer as opposed to the written narrative.

Linfield describes one image thus: “standing at the edge of an earthen pit in what appears to be a forest are two naked men. Each clasps his hands before him, probably to preserve some last semblance of privacy by covering his genitals. A bit behind them is an old man, also naked, whose legs are very thin and who stands slightly hunched over; he still wears a shoe or a sock. To the left of these three stand two others; a naked man and a naked young boy who wears a cap that is tilted slight sideways. Only the child holds his hands behind him.

Behind the five naked prisoners stand six men, some in uniform, some in neatly attired civilian clothes (coats, ties, fedora); alongside the victims, in profile, stands a uniformed soldier. Many of the clothed men – that is, the perpetrators – hold what looks like canes or sticks; the soldiers of course have guns. To the far right of the frame stands another uniformed soldier on a little mound of earth; he turns his head to look at the camera and points to the tableau below (though it is hard to miss)…. “Sniatyn – tormenting the Jews before execution.11.V.1943.””

To another of her descriptive passages I, rather arrogantly, rewrite her narrative and wrote this: He sits his barefoot almost naked body on the ground, wrapping an arm around his legs, his eyes fix on an indistinct shape in front of him. We are told that what attracts Nsala’s gaze is a solitary hand and a foot, the remains of his five year old daughter who has been mutilated, murdered and then eaten by representatives of the Anglo-Belgian Rubber Company after an attack on their village for failing to meet their rubber quota. No remains of his wife were left.

The image to which this relates is this:


Returning to Sontag’s posit that the viewer has only two choices to look or not look I decided to explore the notion of to look but not see, reducing the options. Interposing a fictional narrative – my interpretation of the scene, fictional because I only have the image as a referent – between the image, as a block of colour suggested by the images actual narrative and the caption provide by the photographer. Each image is framed by a similar tone throughout the series within the canvass of the overall frame. All are taken from ‘War/Photography Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath’ Houston Museum of Modern Art Yale University Press.

Kenneth Jareckec2



Felice Beatonc2

Ernest Brooks2c2 Greg Marinovich2c2 Howard Castleberry2c2 Life Magazine2c2 Nanking photo2c2 Suzanne Optonc2

Edward Tinkerc2

Patrick Chauval 3c2


13 thoughts on “Too difficult to look at? Why not look at this in another way?

  1. I think this is a very creative experiment John, particularly after seeing your prints yesterday. This choice of words and/or image must be so complex given individual viewer/reader characteristics. From my own viewpoint sometimes I prefer to imagine a scene in my head and other times I prefer to see an image. I’ll have to be more aware of when and how this happens.

    • There seems to be some interesting overlap between John’s project and the Jaar one that you reference—I think it is an interesting way of questioning how we look at documentary images and how we respond to the visual contained therein.

    • Yes Keith I found Jaar’s work quite profound and wrote about it here It’s probably safe to say that it set some of the direction of travel for how I am looking at documentary photography, or perhaps more widely the use of a photograph as a document; that and seeing Hammond’s work within the same timeframe.
      As regards my own workI showed two of the images from this series (on this post) to some fellow students a couple of days ago at another place and, well to say that they were unimpressed would be to put their collective reaction lightly. Their reaction interested me considerably, clearly the work needs to engage, and it didn’t, in fact it was passed around with almost disdain by some – so at least I got a reaction 🙂 . Plenty to think and talk about I suspect.

      • John I think part of the issue here is the question of the context of presentation. Showing a couple of prints in a seminar type situation is not the right way for work like this. Remembering the Jaar presentation. The lighting was subdued. The boxes were floodlight. There was a text panel explaining the work. The environment was a church and so on…. I dare say if you had shown a print of a Damien Hurst’s polkadots it would have similarly been unimpressed.

      • I dare say you are right about the Hirst! However the Hirst comes with associative power of an established ‘Arts’ presence and commercial relevance – but I’m even more sure that I didn’t preface my work very well and regretted the action (of presenting it).
        The Jaar work was also in an old church (the fisherman’s if I remember correctly) which I think elevated it’s presence, it had an air of reverence, conversation was subdued and the work was considered by the visitors, or perhaps I should say, spectators. And apart from what the space provided to the work, it had a lot to do with the people, and I didn’t forget the connection between the people (fishermen) of the ‘place’ and some of what Jaar alluded to, i.e. the victims of war, of despotism etc.

  2. I found it interesting to see how the group responded second time. I think it is very important for this work to be introduced. I don’t think you can expect people to enter into it unprepared. I also think the way you presented it to the group the first time was much more powerful… your voice in particular and the, as I said before, monotony of it! It’s really interesting and I think there is something in this.

    • I agree with you entirely Sharon. I instinctively felt it was the wrong audience and that I didn’t explain the work very well – so both compounding I think.
      Having said that I think that the twin experiences has taught me a lot, I like performance and I wonder if I could consider that as part of the work???? The work though works for me and I suspect it will underpin my critical essay and, perhaps, what I continue to work on. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Pingback: Assignment four – critical essay, reflections on tutor response and moving on | John Umney - Documentary

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