5

The documentary photograph

The photograph as a document

IN view of the argument regarding the nature of photographic representation developed in earlier chapters—that the photograph is subject to the photographer’s selection of subject, framing, lens and personal regard for the subject, as well as the institutional and broader historical or cultural context—what do we mean if we describe the photographic record as ‘documentary’?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘document’ suggests an artefact that has educational value or has value as evidence: intended primarily for instruction or record purposes. We can extend this definition to include those photo-graphs that are ‘didactic’, ‘observational’ or ‘polemic’. We might consider that it is the didactic intention that fulfils documentary’s educational role. Its approach aims to embellish the straightforward activity of recording by informing the viewer about the subject. Here an accompanying caption or text may act as a narration, whereby a mediator (whether the photographer or a third party) might provide specialised knowledge or expertise, adding to that which we perceive in the photograph. The observational mode (in the broader definition of documentary) aims to provide evidence by means of a document that acts as a channel, in the naive realist sense, whereby the unobtrusive camera allows the viewer a relatively unmediated view of the scene. The overall aim here may be to provide a record of events for the future—to create something that will later have historic value. However, we may also add the polemic approach, which can aim to put forward a particular point of view about the subject. In this instance, the photographer takes issue with the overall aim of expressing what he or she thinks, believes or feels about the subject. But we do need to try (at least) to be clear where the idea ‘to document’ ends and when the photographer aiming ‘to persuade’ or ‘to promote’ becomes involved in producing propaganda. Perhaps we should ask if communication, or indeed in formation, can be neutral or is there always some underlying hidden agenda? This may depend on who is providing the information, and for what purpose, as well as on the broader context of the communicative process.

Again, the categories of the observational, didactic and polemic are not mutually exclusive but can serve to indicate some of the intentional strategies that have been proposed by those photographers who claim to operate in the documentary mode. We should note that, to greater or lesser degrees, all three categories imply different levels of authenticity (that they provide evidence of ‘real’ events) and authority (that

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The Photography Handbook
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Historical Outline of Photographic Representation 12
  • 2 - Pre-Production 36
  • 3 - The Photographic Image 68
  • 4 - Post-Production 89
  • 5 - The Documentary Photograph 118
  • 6 - Photography as a Cultural Critique 135
  • 7 - Characteristics of Digital Photography 151
  • 8 - Conclusion 173
  • Notes 176
  • Glossary 179
  • Bibliography 183
  • Index 191
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