“Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence. In this pictorial presentation of “fact,” the genre has contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world. Social truth is something other than a matter of convincing style.”
It’s something that often seems to be questioned. What is all this photography actually doing? Does it serve any of its claimed social objectives, or are those really just secondary to individual ambition and careerism, and the popularity of your style? One major problem (and possibly a strong indicator of the reality) is that so little is known of the audience’s reaction to the images or the impact such images have on people.
I recently gave a talk at a large university to a mix of philosophy, ethics, and economics undergraduate students. I didn’t know at the time, but these students were asked follow up questions relating what I had said to their studies and to themselves personally. These reflections are slowly being relayed back to me, and they’re fascinating to read. Even more so because these students are not involved in photography and so they’re relating the project and what I talked about to their own fields – economic theory, ethics, issues around individual dignity etc. For me it’s a small demonstration of the potential of documentary images to become meeting points between people of differing social realities. Images that instead of creating stereotypes can contradict them, becoming spaces of communication, dialogue and importantly education. The images cannot do everything all at once, they are not universal in their content, but they can live alongside other projects and fields and become a valuable addition to a greater whole. Shouldn’t this work really step out of its clic and engage other fields of learning, otherwise it sometimes does just feel like an exercise in aesthetics or style.
One of the replies I received however, really knocked me over. A student who had been kidnapped for ransom a few years ago, wrote of the anger she felt towards the type of person I was photographing. I guess she was relating anybody from that social context into the image of her kidnapper. However, she said the talk helped her, leaving the talk she felt a lot calmer emotionally, and that she had lost some of her anger. Again I’m guessing it’s possibly due to a mixture of seeing individuals and their stories reflected in the images, (certainly very few people actually became kidnappers,) alongside gaining greater awareness of the social, historical, economic, and political context of the lives of such people.
It feels a very important comment, something real is happening, and shows again the potential of such work. Unfortunately it’s not something that many people in the industry seem to really consider, for many what’s more important is style, publishing history, and the awards record. The human impact of the work is secondary, it’s often just assumed, and in reality hardly known or evaluated.