Research notes – Martha Rosler

The following observations are made after reading Martha Rosler’s essay “In, around and afterthoughts (around documentary photography)”, available online (the version read can be found here) (1)

Throughout the essay, Rosler makes a number of observations in connection with documentary photography and sociopolitical context. She seem to frame most of her arguments from a marxist perspective (for instance, she suggests that traditional documentary photography is primarily conceived and controlled by the well-off as a means of channelling the social discourse into reform arguments that are “…both polite and negotiable. Odious, perhaps, but manageable…” (2), in a way limiting the outcome of the exposé created by the documentary to actions that do not challenge the status quo. On other instances, she suggests that traditional documentary photography lacks legitimacy and is insufficient because is not directly coming from the struggle of those affected, at one point asking the reader “But which political battles have been fought and won by someone for someone else?” (3). She closes her essay returning to that point, when she says that  “common acceptable of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary” (4).

Rosler political arguments comprise a large portion of the essay and while in some ways I may agree with most of her points from a layman’s perspective, my limited knowledge of political economics and art history would preclude me from passing judgement on something that the author most likely has a better grasp. I find it more interesting instead to focus on what my reaction to the essay is from the perspective of how I photograph and consume photography, and what questions this brings to my mind.

One of the central criticisms levied by Rosler is that of voyeurism and exploitation in the context of social documentary photography (5). The argument comes in a variety of examples (6), but in all cases it is clear that she believes that some classic social documentary photographers, either unconsciously or with full knowledge, have taken advantage of their subjects for either personal gain (financial or peer recognition) or for the advancement of ideas that may be at best neutral and in some cases ultimately detrimental to the subjects’ interests. Photographers in general (and not only limited to those practicing documentary photography) face this dilemma whenever people are included in their pictures. Is it right to “use” somebody – without their permission – to prop an idea or to show them in a compromising, perhaps embarrassing situation just to capture a moment? What if the person is not directly recognisable? Is this more acceptable? I often include people who would not be recognisable to unfamiliar viewers in my photographs: people in silhouette, partially blocked, shot from their backs or simply too small within the frame. While most of the time I think it is OK to use these pictures, on some occasions I have though that if the actual subject were to view these images, they would probably recognise themselves on them, either because they may see a resemblance or simply because they remember being there. And in those cases, I have often asked myself what would be their reaction to seeing their pictures? Would they mind? In the UK it is generally acceptable by law to take pictures of people in public for non-commercial purposes and there is no expectation of privacy. Yet, sometimes what is legal and what is moral do not coincide and in this case, it is down to the judgement of the photographer to decide what is a valid capture and what becomes exploitation. The lines, at least for me, are a little more blurred after reading Rosler’s article.

Another interesting point made by Rosler is in connection with the two possible responses, from a viewer’s perspective (or “moments” as she defined them) to a documentary image: the “immediate” response which is related to the evidential content of the photograph (ie what it shows) in connection with the situation or subjects portrayed, and the “aesthetical-historical” response, which is related to the form of the image and how the subjects or situations are portrayed. In connection with the latter, Rosler argued that the “aesthetic” response is “…enhanced by the loss of specific reference” (7). It is not directly mentioned by her, but one can intuitively conclude that this loss of reference is also directly related to the length of time that passes between the events portrayed and the viewer looking at the picture, as well as to the decontextualisation of the photograph itself (by, for instance, separating it from other pictures which are part of the documentary, or from its original caption). I recently had the pleasure of looking at an original print of Dorothea Lange’s famous portrait of Florence Thompson (“Migrant Mother”) at “The Radical Eye” exhibition in Tate Modern, London. The print had an extraordinary crispness and tonality that cannot be grasped from book reproductions, and was very pleasant to loot at from an aesthetical perspective, perhaps even on par with the best of portraits done under controlled studio conditions.  Yet the suffering of Florence Thompson and her family, the circumstances that put her in the desperate situation portrayed by Lange are too far away from me, in time and distance, to elicit anything other than an aesthetic response. One has to bear this in mind when approaching a documentary subject (and photography in general): to what extent is “form” driving the photographic approach and is it valid to use it to sustain a subject that otherwise would be ignored?

Rosler takes this point one step further when she argues that the well-off classes have recently (at least in the timeframe of the essay) attempted to devoid social documentary of any political meaning by aesthetisizing its contents (8). She cites as examples of this the new documentary photographers sponsored by John Szarkowski throughout his tenure as Director of Photography at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, including the likes of Winogrand, Friedlander and Arbus. This is perhaps the point of the essay with which I struggled the most, for while I can recognise that there may be political interests that would benefit from a banalisation of social documentary, it is not clear to me that what Winogrand or Friedlander did as artists can be characterised as social documentary in the first place, but could perhaps be classified into the realm of regular documentary (ie without any attempts at exposing any abuses or injustices), or even plain collections of images. Consequently, the point of view that such images are devoid of a specific narrative or that can be used to sustain a variety of ideas, none of which may be political, is not necessarily invalid, something that many photographers since then have embraced in their practice. One could argue, for instance, that many of the series done by Martin Parr in recent years – such as “Life’s a beach” (9), to mention one – are documenting events, places and objects without necessarily passing clear social judgement, yet these collections do not seem to undermine the message of social documentary work done by contemporary practitioners like Allan Sekula (see for instance here (10)), as they are not essentially the same type of work. Rosler’s point in connection with the dangers of a displacement of the traditional social documentary by the “new documentarians” does not seem to have been fully realised considering the comments she makes towards the end of the essay when she acknowledges the rise of a “…growing body of documentary work committed to the exposure of specific abuses caused by people’s jobs, by the financier’s growing hegemony over the cities, by racism, sexism and class oppression…” (11). This is not devoid of political content, and in the years following the publication of the essay, we have seen that type of social documentary gaining an even stronger hold, in part also through the advent of citizen journalism.


(1) The essay was originally published in Martha Rosler:3 Works (Rosler, Martha. Martha Rosler: 3 Works: 1. The Restoration Of High Culture In Chile; 2. The Bowery In Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems; 3. In, Around, And Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography). Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Print.), but the version reviewed was obtained online through the following link: References to pages in the following notes are to this document.

(2) Idem,  p 1.

(3) Idem, p 2.

(4) Idem, p 6.

(5) It is worth noting that in the notes to the essay, Rosler makes clear that when she refers to documentary photography in the context of her essay, she is not taking about the “photographic practice having a variety of aesthetic claims but without involvement in exposé” (idem, p7). As I am interested in the latter from a practice perspective, I will refer in the foregoing to the “non-exposé” variety of this as simply “documentary” or “regular documentary”, rather than “social documentary” for the one discussed by Rosler.

(6) See for example the veiled criticism levied against David Burnett’s work in connection with the Chile coup in 1973 (idem, p 3), or the comments made in connection with Florence Thompson’s expectations when Dorothea Lange took her picture (idem, pp 4-5), as well as the less veiled commentary against the documentary “Let Us Now Revisit Famous Folk”, published by the Sunday New York Times Magazine in 1980, in which poor farmers photographed under pseudonyms in the 1940s are revisited, this time with their full names on display, as some sort of cruel update on “…their current state of decrepitude” (idem, p 4)

(7) Idem, p 4.

(8) Idem, pp 4-5.

(9) Magnum Photos. 2017. Magnum Photos. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 June 2017].

(10) Waiting: Loops in Time | Tate. 2017. Waiting: Loops in Time | Tate. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 June 2017].

(11) Rosler, op. cit. p 6.


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