Research notes – Sectarian Murders

The following notes are made in connection with Paul Seawright work “Sectarian Murders”. The images seen were all found in his website (1)

Seawright series depict, in the style of “late photography” the locations where sectarian crimes in Northern Ireland took place in the 1970s. All of the pictures are in full colour and are accompanied by a caption that describes the events without mentioning whether the victims or perpetrators were Catholics or Protestant. The texts were taken from newspaper articles reporting the crimes.

The style of the pictures varies and  not all of them include human figures. Some of the images include elements that are somehow related to the crimes, thus providing a direct link to the narrative for the viewer (for example, the picture captioned “Thursday 14th December 1972” (1) captures a motorcycle passing by, with the accompanying text explaining that the murderer in this case was travelling in the pillion of a motorcycle). In other pictures there are no clear clues, and this sometimes coincides with lack of clarity (from the text caption) as to how the victims were killed, as if Seawright was trying to calibrate his two descriptive systems (text and images) to convey the same degree of information precision. Some of the images show the lens very close to the foreground of the image, which gives a sense of presence to the viewer, as if he or she were immerse in the location. The negative side of this is the connotations of voyeurism and sense of stalking that this gives in certain images, in particular those captioned “Saturday 9th of June 1973” (1) and “Sunday 9th of July 1972” (1), both of which seem to have been taken at relative low angles and from a semi-concealed location.

The pictures are quite attractive to look at and, with all of them being in full, bright and sometimes quite vivid, colours, they are hard to ignore. Flash seems to have been used in nearly all pictures to enhance foreground brightness and increase the lushness of the colours. The pictures are all calm, peaceful and none of them would be particularly conductive of the events depicted by the captions. Seawright decision not to include any direct political background in the text has the effect of cleansing the series further and avoids any potential backlash or recrimination in terms of bias (could the reaction to the series be different, for instance, if he would have maintained references to political affiliations of victims and murderers? Would somebody have objected to the possibility that some of the worst crimes or a greater number of them was committed by a particular faction?) and adds to the ambiguity of the project.

Looking at the video referenced in the study guide (link)(2), where Seawright tries to explain why some people criticise his work for “not being explicit”, he makes a distinction between what he does and what he refers to as “journalism” or “editorial pictures”. The difference, according to him, is that in the latter meaning has to be given as directly and explicitly as possible because the attention span of the viewer is relatively shorter (in the sense that, when reading a picture in a magazine, for example, they would only look at such picture for a few seconds) . There is essentially, very little room for interpretation by the viewer, which is presented with all the necessary clues to reach the conclusion that the picture editor wants to convey. In contrast, his pictures, need to have some ambiguity, so that, in conjunction with the context, “gives up its meaning slowly” and allow the viewer to come up with their own conclusions (which may or may not coincide with what the photographer wanted to convey). Seawright makes a very brief reference to his pictures being visually attractive in the first place, before being digestible by the viewer, and while he does not talk about this in detail, on the evidence of “Sectarian Murders”, it is clear that the colour palette of the pictures is very attractive and that it is the form and aesthetic elements of the picture that first draw the viewer’s attention. The idea of slowly giving meaning, as suggested by his video, does work in the case of “Sectarian Murder” to a certain extent, particularly after one reads the captions accompanying the pictures and can survey in detail the elements that have been included in the frame, but this has its limits: Seawright talks about a “fine line” in photographic work between being too explicit and being too ambiguous, with the latter being rendered “meaningless”. I tend to think that Seawright work in “Sectarian Murder” takes away perhaps too much information in an effort to maintain political neutrality that ultimately detracts from a subject that requires a political treatment.

The pictures in “Sectarian Murders” have a documentary feel to them, in the sense that they purport to report crime scenes, but Seawright implicitly defines his work as art in the video (he does not mention it directly, but it can be inferred from his comparison with other things he did not necessarily consider as artistic, like editorial pictures). He does not talk explicitly about documentary photography in connection with his work, and I do not believe he consider his work to be in the same vein as that. The pictures may be done in an “aftermath” style, but they are too stylish and detached from the events (both in timing, depicting events that happened over a decade before the pictures were taken, but also, in some case, on the lack of visual clues) to be considered as a documentary work. Furthermore, they do not reveal or expose anything in connection with the events or the wider Northern Ireland conflict. This, nonetheless, should not impact on the value of Seawright’s work and its ability to convey meaning or elicit a response from the viewer, be it political or something else. In the video, he seems to suggest that this is important for him, as an artist, to be able to produce work that could be meaningful. I happen to think that in the case of “Sectarian Murders”, the meaning is more at risk of becoming lost on the back of too much political caution, rather than on the classification of the images as “art” instead of documentaries.

But is the use of a documentary style by certain artist deceitful or dangerous? I think it would all depend on how much by way of context is shared with the viewer. If the viewer is led to believe that something entirely fabricated is documenting an event or situation that did not exist in the first place, and this elicits a political response from the viewer, then in as much as that response is directly related to the deceit the photographer would have to share responsibility for his or her actions. In the clear cases where the use of documentary photography is just a stylistic decision (as I think is the case in “Sectarian Murders”), then there should be sufficient ambiguity in what is presented for the viewer to come to their own conclusions without having been swayed in one direction or the other by the artist’s deceit. I think this is what Seawright was referring to when he mentioned in the video that “the construction of meaning” is done “…by the person looking at the artwork”, and that a good piece of art should allow room for that to happen, rather than force meaning upon the viewer.


(1) Paul Seawright. 2017. Sectarian Murder — Paul Seawright. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 07 July 2017].

(2) Vimeo. 2017. Catalyst: Paul Seawright on Vimeo. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2017].


Research notes – Contemporary street photography

The following summary notes are in response to my research into various contemporary street photographers and the points of reflection suggested by the course guide (p 32).

The adoption of colour in street photography brings an additional element of information to the visual impact of images. It is undeniable that colour photographs, by being a more realistic depiction of what we see, are naturally endearing and easier to see and interpret. Because of this extra appeal, the danger I can see is that the use of colour could glamorize or beautify the subjects in a way that may detract from the photographer’s message. This, however, is not necessarily always the case and the opposite may also be true. The series on food by Martin Parr (see for example here and here) required colour in order to have the impact that the photographer wanted). The movement away from black and white has also, in a way, brough a slight shift of aesthetics, from the play with light and contrast that characterised early black and white images (see for instance these images from Louis Stettner here and here, or similar ones by Brassai in here and here), to a more deadpan, straight on look of modern colour street photographs, such as these ones from Joel Meyerowitz (here) or Martin Parr (here), where colour has substituted shape and light as a drag factor.

It is perhaps because of this shift to colour, which is closer to reality, that street photography has become more grounded, more straightforward, and less focused on juxtapositions that evoke a sense of surrealism as a means to escape from daily life, often with humorous undertones (some examples of this from Cartier Bresson (link)(link) and also from some of his contemporaries including Rene Maltete (link)(link)). For sure, the early work of Meyerowitz still included some elements of this, such as his cinema ticket booth attendant picture (link) or Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975 (link), but by the time he moved to his St Louis Arch series just a couple of years after that, he was talking primarily straight shots (see for example, this and this). Paul Graham’s photographs, from early on (he started publishing books in the 1980s), also exhibited this straightforwardness (see for example, this one from his A1 series or this other one from Beyond Caring. It could perhaps be argued that by freeing street photography from the influence of surrealism, contemporary practitioners have been able to focus on juxtaposition for other means, including what could be considered as ironic commentary on western values. While Martin Parr’s early work in West Yorkshire was quite straightforward and had some elements of humorous surrealism, such as this, his subsequent work has veered more and more towards subtle social commentary on contemporary life, including our obsessions with food, sexcultural identity and globalisation, achieved by combining seemingly dispar elements at the right time in a subtle way.

Research notes – Joel Meyerowitz

The following notes come from seeing some of Joel Meyerowitz books and catalogues, in particular, “Cape light” (1) and “The Arch” (2), as well as looking at various websites showing his black and white / colour street photography work (3)(4).

Looking at his street work from the 60s and the 70s, both black and white and colour pictures follow more or less the same formula: Meyerowitz is looking for some element of juxtaposition or incongruity in order to make the image attractive to the viewer. There are various examples of this, such as his picture of a cinema ticket clerk in which the face is obscured by the booth’s speak through grill (“New York City, Times Square 1963” – link) or his photograph of a New York’s 5th Avenue with a leaping stuffed tiger (“Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975” – link). There is also an element of surrealism in some of his work, with my favourite example of this being “Pool in Southwest, 1971” (link), where Meyerowitz takes advantage of the similarity of the pool lines and the design of a translucent parasol in front of it to create an eerie effect of continuity. This is a picture that probably relies on uniformity of tonality and shapes to convey its optical effect and is not likely to have worked as a colour picture. Meyerowitz images from this era reflect the peculiarities of urban life, with its crowds and singularities. But does it show something else beyond that? Could it be interpreted in any other way than as a collection of vignettes, some more peculiar than others from their point of view, but none standing out or revealing something about the subject or the photographer? I am somewhat unconvinced about the transcendence of this work.

In “Cape light” Meyerowitz starts to move away from the crowds and starts a journey towards a more intimate, personal form of photography. The pictures here also start to have a sense of space, in some cases negative space (such as in “Duno Grass House, Truro Massachusetts” – link), but in many other, a separation between the elements that harmoniously inhabit his canvas, creating very pleasantly composed images (such as in the gas station shot in Provincetown 1976 – link) which in some cases are either mysterious (such as in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link) and in most other cases melancholic (such as in his swimming pool shot under a stormy, brooding sky, also taken in Provincetown 1976 – link). The pictures with people in this series are a mixture of insider-outsider shots, with some of his beach shots being very similar to those taken in the streets of New York years before, having the effect of being just a slice of life without any particular connotations (such as in “Ballston Beach, Truro” – link), with others being more intimate (such as in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or “Vivian” – link mature content). These images mainly evoke a life which is lived at a different pace from his early city street shots, and this is not only conveyed by the contents of the pictures but also how they are arranged within the frame. The aesthetic values of the image become more prominent in this series, but Meyerowitz remains true to his earlier form and continues to look for incongruous or stand-out elements to draw the viewer into the frame (see for instance the open, seemingly abandoned car in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link, or the girl walking towards the camera while almost everybody else is chatting away in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or the large red car in front of the beach cabin in “Truro, 1976” – link).

The series of images of Saint Louis’s Gateway Arch in “The Arch” seems initially like a continuation of the “Cape light” approach. Meyerowitz is mesmerised by the transcendence of the arch, at some point in the introduction of the book mentioning that

“There were days when, standing beneath it, I felt I kind of knew the power of the pyramids. It was restorative, contemplative. It was more than a technological marvel or a symbol. It was pure form, the beauty of mathematics, a drawing on the heavens, perfect pitch. I came to be in awe of it.”(5).

The resulting set is an urban exploration of Saint Louis with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop, in some cases almost imperceptible (as in his “brains 25c” shot – link), in others quite prominent (as in his yellow road markings shot – link), but always in a style which is more contemplative, more attuned to “aftermath” photography than his street photographs of the 1960s and early 1970s in New York, and increasingly conscious of its aesthetic values. Most of the images here are almost devoid of any human presence. Meyerowitz perhaps achieved that by taking his images early in the morning or late in the evening, when there would be fewer people on the streets, but may have also done it by deliberately using a long shutter speed (or perhaps the combination of both). After all, most of what we get in the frames are still objects: buildings, roads, parked vehicles, shop windows. Almost nothing is moving here. In the few shots in which people are shown, they are dwarfed by the scale of the arch and other structures depicted (such as this picture of Busch Memorial Stadium – link), immobilized not by the action of the shutter but by their insignificance. Meyerowitz obsession with the arch seem to have taken him as far as possible from the crowded, somehow chaotic world of his early street photography work to one in which space and structure are paramount and the only hint of humanity is in the creation of the space, but not in its inhabitation. Perhaps this is all right in the end. After all, it was a series commissioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum to document the city and this is what we get, a document of the city and its most famous man-made structures. But there are no hints about how St Louisans live or whether they are any different in their life habits from New Yorkers. In focusing too much on the arch, Meyerowitz seems to have compiled a series which is too one-sided and lacks the personal, slightly warmer approach of his “Cape light” and early street work.


(1) Meyerowitz, J., MacDonald, B. and Ackley, C. (1981). Cape light. Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts [u.a.].

(2) Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V. (1988). The Arch. Boston: Little, Brown.

(3) Chasing Light. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | Black & White Work – Chasing Light. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 July 2017]

(4) 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 July 2017].

(5) Quoted from the article “Saint Louis and the Arch”, by Joel Meyerowitz, in Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V., op cit. 

Research notes – Martin Parr

The following observations are made after going through Martin Parr’s book “The Non-Conformists” (1), containing some of his early work black and white photographs. I had previously reviewed Martin Parr’s later colour work in a previous OCA course (Expressing Your Vision) and my observation from that were recorded in my learning log, the relevant entry which can be found here.

The book contains a series of photographs documenting life in Yorkshire market towns, Hebden Bridge / Calderdale and surrounding areas.  The photographs cover various aspects of life in the towns, from work (there are pictures about mines, mineral water works, textile plants, and farms), to culture (including pictures about the local cinema and street parties) and religion (with an extensive coverage of church activities and congregation gatherings). The pictures feel close and there is a clear connection between the photographer and his subjects (in the Wikipedia entry for Hebden Bridge – link, it is claimed that Martin Parr lived in the town for five years, which would explain his familiarity with the place and his inhabitants). This is felt not only through his respectful treatment of the subjects (while still somehow retaining an element of candidness in many of the frames), but also by his identification of the subjects by name in the relevant captions (other than for crowd shots). There is a clear contrast between these photographs, which feel to a certain extent as warm and personal, and some of Parr later work such as the series “The Last Resort” and “Life is a beach” where the point of view is definitely that of an outsider and some of the images feel, to an extent, as slightly voyeuristic (see for example here and here for some examples of that).

It does help, if inded that was the case for Martin Parr in this series, to live in the area to be able to know what to look for in terms of action and people, but it often takes an outsider to be able to spot the oddities of common life and in this series, Martin Parr (who is not originally from Yorkshire but was rather born in the South East of England) reflects some of this outsiderness when he captures moments that may seem unusual to those unfamiliar with life in small towns. His picture (2)(link) of a row of men, perfectly aligned and standing side by side on a grassy slope is hard to decypher until we read from the caption that this is actually the local football ground (and the men were probably standing on what would be one of the ground’s “terraces”). We are equally puzled by some of his photographs documenting the shooting of grouse. In “Gamekeeper, Frank Ideson, Hebden Bridge” (3)(link), the title being the only caption available in the book, we are not sure why the subject’s head is under the snow (the additional explanation in the Magnum website linked gives additional clues not present in the book), whereas the picture “Lord Savile (centre), Hebden Bridge” (4)(link) contains a woman in sunglases either playing dead or sleeping, seemingly at odds with what the other two characters in the frame are doing. These pictures may add a bit of humour to the series, but they also make the more serious point that life is not always what we expect and that others may choose to live it differently.

Parr makes a lot of emphasis on the religious aspect of life in these towns, and pictures covering this represent an important chunk of the book (about 40% of the total). The title of the book also derives from this (5). Pictures here are a mixture of lonely, intimate portraits of people praying and shots of congregations during services and in social functions. Parr impecable timing and observational skills are at its best in these pictures. The juxtaposition of a painting of the Last Supper with a lady adding suggar to her tea, framed by the backs of two co-diners (6)(link), has a powerful feeling of life imitating art, whereas the image of two separate group of churchgoers, separated across two floors, in “Steep Lane Baptist Chapel” (7)(link), sets the tone on the seriousness and formality of some of these proceedings. But is not all taken too seriously, for church life is more than just service and sermon in these places where there is not much else to do.  Parr does well in captures these moments, ranging from the typical tea parties to the more exotic vegetables auctions, in a way that focuses less in the action and more in the arrangement of players at the precise moment to emphasize a mood. Some of these pictures, such as “Pecket Well Methodist Chapel Anniversay service” (8)(link) or “Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel” (9)(link) are not, in formal terms, much dissimilar to the images captured by Joel Meyerowitz in the early 1970s in New York City (see for instance “Gold Corner, New York City” here), where you have people looking in all sort of different directions within the frame. But while Meyerowitz’s images convey a sense of purpose and individual determination (in a way dictated by the context), Parr’s subjects seem to be united in their distraction, in as much as it captures a moment (eg the socialisation that follows a religious service) that may be familiar to enough viewers to make the right connection in their minds.


(1) Parr, M. and Parr, S. (2013). The non-conformists Martin Parr. New York: Aperture.

(2) Idem, p 71

(3) Idem, p. 22

(4) Idem, p. 27

(5) The dusk jacket blurb of the book mentions that the title The Non-Conformists “…refers to the Methodists and Baptists chapels that characterize this area of Yorkshire”

(6) Idem, p. 101

(7) Idem p. 93

(8) Idem p. 159

(9) Idem p. 163

Research notes – Joel Sternfeld

The following comments come from looking at the book Stranger Passing by Joel Sternfeld (1) as well as browsing through his pictures in the Luhring Augustine Gallery website (2).

Stranger Passing is a book of portraits in full colour. These were taken in the 1980s and 1990s. The format of the book includes one picture per two-page spread, with the picture on the right hand side page, and a caption on the left hand side. The caption are generally just descriptive of what we see, as in “A man cooking his dinner, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 1999” (link) or “Real State Brokers, Westwood, California, May 1988” (link), but in some cases they contain a short description of events affecting the subjects around the time the photograph was taken, as in “A man waiting for a tow truck to take his car to a demolition derby at the county fair, South Hadley, Massachusetts, September 1998. The tow truck never came and he was unable to race that year” (link), or “A farmer taking a break, Iowa, November 1987. She has cancer of the thyroid” (link). The additional information provided by those captions helps the viewer place the subject in a given state of mind, and allows for an additional layer of narrative, when the connection is made between the moment shown in the picture, and what we imagine the subject could be feeling a few hours later. In the “man waiting for a tow truck” picture, for instance, we can get a sense of the subject’s excitement before going into the demolition race, and can imagine his subsequent frustration when the tow truck failed to show up.

I found the pictures themselves to be quite interesting, not for any particular technical aspect, but because of their ambiguity. A lot of the pictures are clearly posed, and in all cases, the subject is fully aware of the photographer’s presence. The title to the book suggests that the photographer did not know his subjects in advance, but in many pictures there is a sense of complicity, of mutual understanding between the subject and the photographer that may betray a relationship or at least brief familiarity between the two. This, however, seems to be broken in those pictures were the subjects look bemused (as in “Summer Interns having lunch, Wall street, New York, New York, August 1987” – link) or even slightly annoyed at the apparent intrusion of the lens in their daily routine (as in “A lawyer with laundry, New York, New York, October 1998” – link). Other than what we see, however, there is no clear evidence that these pictures are genuinely candid or staged. The viewer is left to wander that on its own.

The series At the Mall, New Jersey, shot in the early 1980s, is also mostly a collection of portraits and not necessarily what we would expect to see from the title. There are several pictures of couples and families, presumably shoppers at the mall, but the shots are quite tight and is hard to figure out the context of the images, others than through clues included in some of the images, such as people holding shopping bags or the goods they have just purchased, or store front signs in the background. While the pictures in Stranger Passing were frontal, leaving no doubts about the presence of the photographer, in At the Mall there are a few images which are taken from behind the subject (such as “New Jersey, (#3) May / June 1980” – link, and “New Jersey, (#25) May / June 1980” – link), and which look more candid. As these images where shot at close range, one could have some doubts as to whether the subjects were aware that they were being photographed or if the images were actually staged. All in all, the series seems to be more about people the photographer have encountered on location, but the location itself does not seem to mean much (other than providing a backdrop), and these pictures could have been easily taken at any other place with the same effect.

In Rush Hour, taken in the mid-1970s, Sternfeld approach is reminiscent of the early colour work of Joel Meyerowitz (see my observations on this here). The images have a somewhat chaotic or disorienting feeling to them, with many being slightly slanted (see for example “New York City (#2), 1976” – link), taken from a high angle (like in the case of “New York City (#16), 1976” – link) or showing the subjects too close (see for instance “Chigago (#6), 1976” – link).  Like in many of the pictures in At the Mall, Sternfeld makes extensive use of flash, in many cases for fill, but in other cases rendering the background so dark that it is not possible to determine the time of the day with certainty (see for instance “New York City (#14), 1976” – link), which adds to the disorienting feeling. I presume that Sternfeld wanted to show us life in large metropolis was always unpredictable and in a rush, and to an extent the pictures show that, but there is also an element of interference by the photographer, which is not a far-off bystander but very much in the middle of the action, in some cases literally within breathing space of his subjects. It is impossible to conceive some of these pictures without the subjects being aware of the presence of the photographer. The photos all look candid enough to assume that either the subjects did not care or were directed to act naturally, but I find the angle of view combined with the use of flash a little bit disturbing in some cases.

The approach is completely different in the series Walking the high line, which was shot in the early 2000 in a disused section of the elevated West Side rail line in New York city (recently converted into a park, but derelict at the time Sternfeld took his pictures). In here, we are not shown people, just straight shots of abandoned railroad filled with grass and wild flowers, changing through the seasons (see for instance “A view towards the Hudson, February, 2001” – link, and a shot with a similar view a few month later in “A Spring evening, the Hudson, May, 2001” – link) and contrasting with the functioning buildings in the background. These images are evocative of an oasis of tranquility among the rush of city life. Perhaps to emphasize this, Sternfeld’s pictures are shot completely leveled with verticals corrected (he likely used a view camera) and no flash. There is no intention of creating any dynamism in the images, as these are not about action but more about retreating and contemplating.

Sternfeld returns to street photography in the series iDubai, taken in the middle eastern city. While many of the pictures in the series were taken in malls, according to the captions, the approach followed by Sternfeld is completely different from At the Mall, New Jersey. The photographer here has decided to maintain good distance to his subjects, cementing his position of outsider, with many of the shots being taken from the back, and possibly in a concealed way (see for instance “Cinema, Mall of Dubai, 2008-2009” – link, and “Burjuman Centre, 2008-2009 – link). The images in here are also quite plain from an aesthetical perspective, having a snapshot quality. The whole series feels like what a tourist would take when he goes to a place for the first time and finds something either out of the ordinary (such as the shiny chrome car in “Valet parking, Kempinski hotel, Mall of the Emirates, 2008-2009” – link) or connected to home (as in Burger King, West food court, Mall of the Emirates, 2008-2009″ – link), and fails to provide (perhaps purposely) any sort of judgement on the matters portrayed.

(1) Sternfeld, J., Nickel, D. and Frazier, I. (2001). Stranger passing. New York: Melcher media.

(2) (2017). Joel Sternfeld – Artists – Luhring Augustine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Jul. 2017].

Personal reflection – On the surface

One of the recurring ideas that have come out from my readings and research in part 1 of the course is the limitations of photography as a medium for conveying meaning. Because photography primarily deals with what is visible, on the surface of people and things, it is unable to show what lurks beneath in the mind of the photographer or the subject. Consequently, it has to rely on other means to create a narrative. In addition to the use of alternative descriptive systems (such as written captions) to complement photography, another one way of dealing with the aforementioned limitation is to use graphic templates to elicit responses in the viewer. We know that certain images are capable of creating outrage, compassion, boredom or sympathy, among other sensations, and a photographer that wants to convey a certain message can make use of such knowledge to that effect, something that is probably extensively done in the sphere of commercial photography but that can be equally valid (albeit not necessarily explicitly used) in the context of fine art photography. The growing problem with this approach is that, as we live in a world which is overloaded with images (both moving and still), there is really nothing we have not previously seen and the likelihood that we would be surprised or find something eye-catching is rapidly diminishing. This has proved a real challenge for photography, with standalone images looking more and more stylised, and ever pushing the barrier of what could be morally acceptable to depict, in a quest for grabbing the viewers’ attention for a few seconds. This path seems to have taken us even deeper into the realm of the aesthetics over content, where we do not have time to examine an “ordinary” picture for clues about what the photographer may be trying to tell us.

Research notes – Paul Graham

The following notes have been made after looking at the book Paul Graham (1) containing a selection of his pictures taken between 1981 and 2006, organised by series and in chronological order.

The book starts with Graham’s pictures from the series A1 – The Great North Road, which I presume were taken alongside the A1 from its start in Central London until its end in Edinburgh. The pictures are all in colour and were presented in the original book (a thumbnail facsimile reproduction of which is added at the end of the book consulted (2)) with one picture per two page spread, with the image on the right hand side page, and captions on the left hand side page.

The pictures are a mixture of portraits, candid shots, landscapes and empty interiors shots. All the pictures have an aura of outsiderness to them, like if they were a mere recording of all the people and places one can possibly find on a road trip. Some of the portraits feel warm (like that of Tony, Tower Cafe, Caldecote, Bedfordshire, May 1982 – link), but this is more the exception than the rule. Many of the lay-by cafes depicted in this series tend to be visited on a one-off basis and they generally have an unfriendly atmosphere to them, which I think was successfully captured by Graham. Some of his pictures are particularly stylish and manage to catch the eye very well, which helps to maintain the attention of the viewer, even though the subject may be mundane (see for instance Bible, Driver’s bedroom, Interior, Blyth Services link and Burning Fields, Melmerby link). In addition to the successful composition, colour here also helps to grab the attention (particularly in the Bible and Burning Fields pictures). I felt that as a whole, the series felt quite detached and strange, with the photographer choosing to focus on places on the side of the road, rather than on the cities and towns through which the A1 passes through. The strangeness, however, is something that is attractive and I can relate to in connection with my own practice, which recently has tended to focus on mundane objects found around me.

The second series in the book was Beyond Caring, which includes various interior photographs of the old Department of Health and Social Security (“DHSS”) offices and waiting rooms in the early 1980’s. The format used in the original book is the same as in the previous one, with one colour picture on the right hand side page and the caption printed on the left hand side page. A thumbnail facsimile reproduction of the book was also included at the back of the book consulted (3)

The images in here, also in full colour, are all shot in the interior of offices. They portray people waiting in DHSS offices, presumably for unemployment pay or job seeking advice. These pictures feel slightly closer than the A1 series, with the angle of the camera sometimes trying to put the viewer at the centre of the action, or rather lack of it, as the pictures depict endless stillness while waiting, (see for instance Waiting Room, Poplar DHSS, East London link), but it transmits the same feeling of melancholy as some of the A1 images, both of which included interior short of slightly run-down, dirty and cold places. They continue to be outsider images but have a greater degree of human interest, not only because there is more people in them, but also because the situation depicted could be considered highly political.

The book continues with the series Troubled Land, which includes pictures of Northern Ireland taken between 1984 and 1986. The presentation of the original book is very similar to that used in Beyond Caring.

Like the previous series, the pictures here are in full colour. They seem again to be taken from an outsider perspective and show essentially no action, being primarily landscape and cityscape shots with very little human presence. A technique which Graham uses for this series, which I find myself attempting quite often in my own practice,  but that is quite difficult to do in a way that is visually arresting, is to use either a normal or wide-angle lens to capture objects in the distance, which would tend appear as tiny spots in the resulting photograph. This can be seen thought out the series, in pictures like Union Jack Flag in Tree link – or Army Helicopter and Observation Post – link. While we were quite close to the subjects in Beyond Caring, in Troubled Land, the distance could not be greater. Graham goes to great lengths to ensure that he is away as possible from any action, to the point that we cannot see it at all in many instances (like for instance in Republican Parade, Strabanelink or in H-Block Prison Protestlink, where the camera is so far away one cannot see either parade or protest). Without the benefit of the original book text, one would never guess what these pictures were trying to show; but after looking at the caption, one could could never be sure if these pictures are trying to depict the “aftermath” of the actions, or the the actions themselves. In the small number of images were the action is somewhat visible, the distance is so great that is impossible to distinguish what is going own (such as for instance in Army Stop and Search, Warrenpoint link). This creates a lot of ambiguity and feels like it has been done in such a way deliberately by the photographer to obfuscate his personal views on the matter. While the subject in Troubled Land can be considered as political as that of Beyond Caring, Graham’s point of view felt considerably more personal, involved and painful with the latter, than with his bucolic images from Northern Ireland that give very little away in terms of the difficulties experienced by its inhabitants.

The book continues with Graham series The New Europe, taken in various European locations between 1988 and 1992. The original book, also reproduced in thumbnail images (3), takes a different approach from the previous one, showing the images without captions, with some of them spreading two pages. All the pictures are again in full colour.

The images are an eclectic mixture of portraits and interior/exterior shots of places and objects. Graham makes use of flash for some of the images, most of which have a snapshot feeling to them. While the A1 and Beyond Caring pictures were clearly done in the style of a documentary, the pictures in The New Europe seem more personal, more as if they were taken from a position of privilege (insider view). In the picture Untitled, Belfast, 1988 (Woman Smoking Cigarrette) link -, for instance, I cannot help thinking that it is the photographer who is trying to grab the woman in the arm. Some of the other pictures, like for instance Untitled, England, 1989 (Baby) couldn’t possibly have been taken outside a circle of family or close acquaintances (or perhaps Graham have had it all staged in an attempt to deceit the viewers!).  Yet, other than showing people and places from various parts of Europe, the series does not have the sufficient togetherness, both in form or content, to pull the viewer in any particular direction of narrative. It is difficult to understand what Graham seems to be saying.

The next series in the book, Television Portraits has been taken since 1986. These are all colour portraits of people from various places (in America, Europe and Asia) watching television. The portraits are all quite similar in style, with the subjects looking equally intensely (see for example this) or bored (or this one) at the screen, which is always outside the frame. What I find interesting about these images, which are all taken from an insider perspective, is the fact that people from different cultures are all united in their reaction to televised images. Either television has universalized its cultural appeal or we are not as different as we think.

In the series Empty Heaven, taken in Japan between 1989 and 1995, Graham returns to his eclectic mix of object and subject portraits. This time, the original book (5) has pictures shown side by side, as if they were paired, or spread across two pages. It also includes some pictures that are either heavily unsaturated or that were taken in black and white film, but the majority of the images are in full colour. The aesthetic values are very similar to those used in The New Europe: there is a lot of flash used and the majority of the pictures have a snapshot feeling to them. The series shows cultural elements that have been associated with Japan (or that are perhaps stereotypes of Japanese culture), including images of cats (eg link), various visual references to the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath (eg link), cherry blossom (eg link) and car engines (eg link). Object pictures are inserted next to or between portraits of people, some of which have been taken in a personal setting and betray a sense of insiderness (eg link). My feeling from the series is that while Graham may have lived in Japan at the time of taking these pictures, and probably was acquainted with many of the people portrayed, his overall stance on the series is detached. It feels as if Graham is (politely?) pointing out what he feels may be odd about Japanese culture.

Graham returns briefly to Northern Ireland (or maybe not?) in his series Ceasefire, shot between 6-8 April 1994. I express my doubts because even though the captions refer to places in Norther Ireland, the pictures themselves are all sky shots, not showing any recognisable feature that could betray their location. They could have equally been taken in Kent. As in Troubled Land, Graham largely takes an “aftermath” approach in this series and shows largely similar cloudy skies (except for a couple of shots in which the sky was particularly dark – link – (perhaps taken after sunset) or almost white and featureless – link), which are not only detached from any action, but so far removed from its subject that any connection or interpretation imaginable is possible. I find the lack of engagement of the photographer with the political undertones of the subject quite disconcerting.

In the series the End of an Age Graham shows us a series of portraits of young people not doing particularly much other than posing. The original book, reproduced is small thumbnails (6), is quite chaotic in its presentation, having full two page spreads of one picture (particularly used in facial close-ups), as well as two pictures side by side, and one picture alone on the left or right hand side page of a spread, with no particular order being followed. The images are quite close, as if taken from a position of privilege, but they are also feel detached, as if subject and photographer could not see eye to eye. There are many pictures of people’s backs (eg link) and side features and no one is really looking at the camera. In some of the pictures, people appear to be in a trance and there is a voyeuristic feeling to the whole series, as if the photographer was abusing his position by showing some of the subjects in an unflattering manner (eg link). The way subjects are depicted, as well as the randomness of the original book’s presentation give an overall feeling of chaos and irreverence, but it is not clear if the photographer is attuned to this or critical, because of the ambiguity there is between the closeness of the images and the detachment between subject and photographer.

In Paintings Graham takes a series of pictures of graffiti or dirty walls, done in the late 1990s. The book goes back to the early books presentation style of having just one picture every two pages, placed on the left hand side page, but the pictures now are slightly smaller and have no accompanying caption (7). Like in End of an Age, the pictures have a uniform style and seem to be merely a collection. Perhaps, given the title, this is what the photographer wanted this to be: a collection of dirty walls and modern vernacular “paintings” (see for example, this and this other one). I find the series not as successful as similar efforts to portray rubbish by the likes of Keith Arnatt and Fay Godwin. As the subject itself is generally unappealing from a classical aesthetic perspective, it would take a certain styling in order to grab the attention of the viewer. This is not present here, as the graffiti is depicted as straight as possible (see here and here, for example).

The book continues with American Night a series of images that were taken in the USA between 1998 and 2002. The original book is organised with one picture on the right hand side page and a blank left hand side page with no caption, as in the Paintings series (8). The majority of the images, which portray American cityscapes, have been deliberately overexposed or printed overexposed, so that they contain almost no discernible detail (eg link). From time to time, these almost blank images are intersected by correctly exposed images, showing the exterior of well-off suburban homes (eg link) or people (the majority of them seemingly destitute or disabled) on the street (eg link). The original book, which is lavishly printed, is perhaps the most aestheticised series I have seen to date, and is hard to make anything of it, except perhaps to say that the portraits and street photography images showed towards the middle of the series are in my opinion, clearly voyeuristic and exploitative. Perhaps the photographer wanted us to reflect upon the socioeconomic divide in America or to take a view on income inequality, but the aesthetic elements of the series are so strong that they are slightly off-putting and non-conductive of any political reflection. None of the people featuring in the street photographs seem to have given consent to be photographed, although some seem to be aware that they were being photographed (and do not seem particularly pleased by it, like for instance American Night No 38 (Woman Sitting on Sidewalk) New York 2002 – link). These pictures are not denouncing anything and appear to be intrusive and devoid of any sensibility.

In the final series contained in the book, A Shimmer of Possibility the presentation changes again. The original book had one image for every two page spread, either on the left or right hand side page, but the images were of different sizes (most of them quite small, though) and changed their position on the page as the book progressed (9). This is a series of photographs of people doing various mundane activities: cutting grass (link), eating (link), walking with their shopping (link), but Graham presentation is quite interesting in that it resembles the information one would get from a moving picture. In the series, for instance, we see a woman eating and we have a group of related images depicting the before, during and after of this activity, with a close up of the food she is eating as well as the rubbish she has left behind after finishing. With this presentation style, it is possible to get more information than what one would normally get from a single frame. It seemingly makes the job of the viewer easier, but at the same time, there has to be something for the viewer to get at. The problem with A Shimmer of Possibility is that the situations depicted are so mundane that there is no real interest in the end, even if we built the viewer’s attention up by showing different aspects of the situation.

(1) Graham, P., Mack, M., Chandler, D., Ferguson, R. and Almereyda, M. (2009). Paul Graham. Göttingen: steidlMack

(2) Idem, pp 305-309.

(3) Idem, pp 310-313.

(4) Idem, pp 320-323.

(5) Idem, pp 324-326.

(6) Idem, pp 328-331.

(7) Idem, pp 332-333.

(8) Idem, pp 334-339

(9) Idem, pp 340-352

Research notes – David Campany

The following notes come after reading David Campany’s essay ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”’, first published in David Green ed., Where is the Photograph? (1).

Campany’s essay focuses on the role of photography in contemporary documentary practices. One of the arguments made is that with the growing popularity of video from the late part of the 20th century, photography’s role in documenting current events has moved from capturing the action (ie being in front of it) to a depiction of the aftermath (ie being behind the events). The reasons for this, according to Campany, are not directly related to technological changes as such, but to the transformation of photography’s place in culture, with photography now being “much less the means by which the event is grasped” (1) in news outlets, while “Video gives us things as they happen” (1). The popularisation of television first and then social media / alternative digital distribution channels in recent years have meant that people consume current events more through moving images than stills, which are more attuned to increasingly unpopular news outlets like the printed press or magazines.

The “aftermath” focus of photography in recent documentary practices, according to Campany, is also in part attributable to another cultural shift, which is the use by moving image outlets (Campany singles out television and the cinema) of still images as some sort of “…instant history or memory that they, as moving images, are not” (1), which Campany believes may have “…cemented the popular connection of photography with memory…” (1). It is not entirely clear why the still photograph is more “memorable” than the moving image, but Campany believes this may be connected with the simplicity and compactness of information of still photography, compared with the complexity and large amounts of information that would need to be consumed at fast speed while watching a movie or television programme. This simplicity of still photography, and (although this is not explicitly mentioned by Campany) its superficiality, being only able to capture what we see in an instant with limited narrative powers, also allow it to remain ambiguous and open to interpretation, a characteristic which is particularly present in “aftermath” photographs which are taken after the events.

In the essay, Campany makes reference to a project undertaken by Joel Meyerowitz to photograph Ground Zero in NY while they were cleaning the remnants of the World Trade Center. These photographs, taken after the event, have a certain aesthetic component that Campany argues is probably impossible to avoid for a photographer with a long experience like Meyerowitz, that have develop a certain style that is now become second nature. The danger, according to Campany, is that with “aftermath” photography the removal from the events depicted combined with a desire, even if unconscious, to capture what is attractive to the eye may elicit “…an aestheticized response.” (1) and could “…easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance” (1).

On a personal level, a lot of my photographs in recent months have been of the “aftermath” type. While I do not normally do documentary photography as such, and I am not trying to reflect on events of historical significance, I recognise there is a certain ambiguity in my pictures which may be disconcerting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if that was the response I am trying to elicit, but sometimes I feel the aesthetic elements of the picture are too overpowering and it is not clear what the actual intention of the picture is, even if I may have an idea about what I want to say. \With this type of photography, and particularly for circumstances that are not specifically tied to an event, it is crucial to be able to hit the correct balance between form and content. Form should be able to create and sustain attention just enough to that content can build a narrative, particularly over a series of photographs.

(1) David Campany. 2017. Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ – David Campany. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 06 July 2017].

The essay was reproduced in the author’s website, from where it was accessed.

Research notes – Inside / Out

The following observations are based on my reading of the essay “Inside / Out” by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, which first appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition “Public information: desire, disaster, document” held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art between January 18 and April 30 1995 (1).

Central to Solomon-Godeau’s essay is the perspective of the photographer and how that may influence the interpretation of the results. She cites two possibilities in that respect: the “outsider” perspective, characterised by a detachment from the subject, lack of empathy and, on an extreme level, “…rejection of all the hallmarks of photographic authorship…” (2), and the “insider” perspective, which involves engagement between the photographer and its subject (including in occasion direct participation in the events depicted) as well as privileged access to the intimacy of the latter.

At some point in the essay Solomon-Godeau talks about the implications of the two perspectives according to contemporary photographic critics including Marta Rosler and Susan Sontag, hinting that the “outsider” perspective has perhaps the more negative connotations, associated with voyeurism, objectification and expropriation / disenfranchisement (by the “outsider” of his/her subjects), whereas the “insider” position is associated with a more humane, sometimes even more compassionate, approach to the subjects. Yet, Solomon-Godeau believes that in reality the distinction is not as clear-cut, due in part to the limitations of the photographic medium itself: photographs are only able to capture what is visible and nothing beyond that. Consequently, no amount of intimacy or engagement with the subjects by “insider” practitioners is able to overcome the fact that photography “…remains fixated on the outside, that it cannot tell what the photographer knows, it cannot reveal a truth of the subject.” (3), and as a consequence, it may not be possible to separate, either in form or in content, an “insider” picture from that produced “superficially” by somebody taking it from an “outsider” perspective. The issue is further complicated by the interaction between photographs and their viewers. Indeed, some of the examples of “insider” works cited by Solomon-Godeau in the essay, such as Nan Godin’s “The Other Side” or Larry Clark’s “Teenage Lust” contain images of vulnerable groups of people (drag queens in the former, teenagers performing sexual acts in the latter), that, in spite of the author’s best intentions, may still be perceived or interpreted as being portrayed in an objectivising, exploitative manner simply by virtue of the viewer’s prejudices.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Solomon-Godeau argues that the cold detachment of the “outsider” perspective, by being more attuned to the superficiality of photography as a medium, is capable of achieving a certain degree of unambiguous authenticity, which Solomon-Godeau has termed “a truth of appearance”, achieved by a presentation of the subjects “…with a sort of principled modesty and discretion [that] refuses “interpretation” altogether” (4).

The implications of Solomon-Godeau’s argument are interesting. The “insider” approach, by virtue of its intimacy, is capable of giving the viewer access to points of view that would otherwise not be accessible, but at the same time, because pictures are not capable of providing any clarity beyond their surface, the resulting ambiguity could give way to interpretations which are considered as exploitative or objectifying. This is avoided somewhat by taking an extreme “outsider” perspective that, by refusing the subjectivity of artistic interepretations, contents itself with embracing the authenticity of what is being shown, without looking for any further meaning or truth beyond the surface. In my opinion this latter position is too safe, and is perhaps also untenable in reality. The examples quoted by Solomon-Godeau in her essay are perhaps in the extreme ends of the perspective spectrum and is likely that most photographic practices will fall somewhere in the middle of the inside / outside duality. It is hard to argue that a photographer can be wholly objective most of the time: we all have prejudices and preconceptions and will develop various degrees of attachment to our subjects, all of which will influence how we photograph them. Even if it was possible to be completely neutral vis-a-vis the selection of our subjects (like for instance, when we photograph indiscriminately a collection of similar objects) it is difficult to conclude that the photographer is not exercising its artistic interpretation when, for instance, he or she decides to take the series of pictures in a certain style.

As a practitioner, most of my work at the moment could be seemingly classified as being on the “outsider” end of the spectrum, in a much as I tend not to have a relationship or attachment with the people or objects that I photograph, other than a temporary attraction. But alternatively, I could turn around this and say that my temporary attraction to these subjects comes from inside of me, from a picture that forms in my mind and which in many cases differs from the reality captured by the camera, and that these pictures are all somehow related. This potential “insider” perspective, which could at some point turn autobiographical, is presently plagued by the limitations of the medium, as mentioned by Solomon-Godeau, which prevent me from effectively transmitting thoughts and feelings into something that can only hold what is on the surface.


(1) Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Inside / Out”. Public Information : Desire, Disaster, Document. Kara Kirk and Fronia W. Simpson. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995. 49-61. Print

(2) Idem, p 51.

(3) Idem, p 58.

(4) Idem, p 60.

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 certainly 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 creates in 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 the 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) 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 though 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 intesting 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” reponse 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 descontextualisation 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 crispiness and tonality that cannot be grasped from book reproductions, and was very pleasant to loot at from an aesthetical perspecive, 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, and 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 pracitioners 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 177.

(3) Idem, p 179.

(4) Idem, p 196.

(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 pp 196-197). 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 184), or the comments made in connection with Florence Thompson’s expectations when Dorothea Lange took her picture (idem, p 185), 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 187)

(7) Idem, p 186.

(8) Idem, p 188.

(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 196.