Part One The photograph as document

Project 2 Photojournalism

Thoughts on some viewpoints about documentary photograph

Charity – Martha Rosler

Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?

Photography’s ability to effect social reform was championed at the end of the 19th century by photographers working for charities or government agencies. Roy Stryker head of FSA’s historical section gave the photographers “shooting scripts” selected the images added captions to help “Transform images of everyday moments into a powerful social document” ( Baker et al, 2016)

Martha Rosler, a Brooklyn based photographer and writer in her essay “The contest of meaning” (Rosler, 1981) offers her thoughts on documentary photographers photographing poverty. She argues that “Documentary, as we know it, carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful” (Rosler p 179, ) and insists that photographing poverty does not bring about social change, only testifies ”to the bravery or (dare we name it?) the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer who dared to enter the situation and showed others places they don’t go to” (Rosler p180, 1981). She also cites the example of the photograph by Dorothea Lange, Migrant mother (1936), one of the worlds most reproduced photographs, where when the original subject later aged 78 living in a small trailer, actually asked what good did the photo actually do her? She highlights that Szarkowski suggests that a new generation of photographers had moved documentary photography away from improving the world and that they have more personal aims  although she feels that he makes a weak case for this (La Grange, 2005).

It cannot be a bad thing that the camera added to journalistic reports of social life rarely seen by middle class people. Hine was a prolific photographer of people at work and ”dedicated to the cause of using his images in the service of social reform” (Wells, 2015). The impact of his images on social conditions may not have been immediate but it would be difficult to prove that it had none. Danish born Riis, a reporter turned photographer, photographed social conditions at work and at home and ”grew frustrated by his inability to convince people of the nature of the poverty” (Wells, 2015), however he persevered.

It seems to me that sometimes images are taken for their aesthetics, sometimes for their power to shock or even to incite action and sometimes for both. To say that photographing poverty or degradation has no impact on social change is a generalistion. When images are taken and presented in order to bring change about or taken as art doesn’t designate whether social change may come about because of them. If the subjects are comfortable with being photographed and not later exploited, or even unknowingly photographed but not later exploited then there can be little harm in doing so and it may bring about some change through raised awareness. The context and narrative provided is along side the image is vital if  to transmit the correct meaning; for instance Lange also photographed “The damaged child” ( 1936), an image of a little girl with a black eye – Lange actually wrote on the back of the photograph “The damage is already done….so much more poignant than the title the damaged child that you always see in the books” (Elton John cited in Baker et al, 2016). In fact he gives an example of the power of photography for social change, citing how the citizenship photos of 9\11 were for sale at ground zero with the proceeds going to the victims.

Compassion fatigue – Susan Sontag

“In these last decades ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”  (Sontag, 1979, p.21)

Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses? Read your answer again when you’ve read the next section on aftermath photography and note whether your view has changed. See also: when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/#1 [accessed 24/02/14]  

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an American writer, film maker teacher and political activist. She began to write about photography in the 1970s, one of her best known books On Photography (1979) analyses the changes that photographic images have had on the way we look at the world “ Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood” (Sontag 1979). On photographing war, she argued that photography is an act of non-intervention and that when photographing war and a photographer will unfortunately choose an image over a person’s life. She purports that “Images transfix. Image anesthetize…But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real” (Sontag, 1979), her position being that “Initially photography makes things more real, but constant exposure ends up making them less real” (La Grange, 2005). She did eventually reverse her thinking in her essay “Regarding the pain of others” (2004), where she discusses the way that many war photographs have been staged for journalists, and reflected having experienced war in Sarajevo that “photographers are being held to a higher standard of probity” (Sontag, 2004). It seems that she “particularly dislikes a kind of fancy rhetoric that downplays the reality of war and pretends that everything has turned into a spectacle” (Fenton, 2016).

David Campbell, another writer on photojournalism, writes on “The Myth of Compassion Fatigue” (2012), and addresses what he sees as the three groups of evidence for compassion fatigue: the accelerating abundance of imagery, the increasingly graphic nature of such images, and the deadened conscience of the audience. He dispels the myth, citing continuing generous charitable donations and that “rendering our capacities solely in terms of compassion – either its excess or lack – is too singular and limited a view” (Campbell, 2012). He asserts that the myth of compassion fatigue “is entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how images produced by photojournalism work … and for too long it has prevented that thinking from progressing” (Campbell, 2012).

Considering atrocities in Nazi Germany, Argentina, Cambodia amongst others Ritchin writing in Time magazine suggests that if they had been exposed earlier they may have been mitigated and that “Many documentary photographers today continue to take enormous physical and psychological risks for just this reason: to expose contemporary abuses so that, the expectation endures, something may be done to rectify them.”(Ritchen 2014). However ultimately he concludes that some images may now be suspect and the social contract which should lead to moral outrage therefore becomes frayed.

One of the reasons that photography developed around the world was the desire to record wars. It must be argued that revealing images of war in Vietnam “was a major factor in the public’s eventual repugnance for that war” (Wells 2015). Obviously it is vital that images are realistic and balanced as with all reporting, but where this is so I believe that they give the opportunity at least to raise awareness of events.

War reporting has now changed and as the military try to control reports and images, often reports and images are given from a distance or taken after events. They may “have no images of direct conflict, but show traces of the war” (Wells 2015). It seems that it is video footage that now gives us news as it happens, whilst war photography is most often aftermath photography (apart from citizen photos), “the static photograph taken after an event, rather than the frozen image made of an event, is the radically open image par excellence” (Campany 2003). This presents dilemmas as it removes the reader from the event as the photograph emphasises the pastness of the event. As Campany points out “The danger is that it can also foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern” (2003).

I suggest that there is a place for War photography in the moment as well as aftermath images, however in both cases the onus is on both photographers and editors to record and display them accurately and not to stage, bend or represent them in a way other than they happened or impacted.

Inside/out – Abigail Solomon-Godeau

In her 1994 essay ‘Inside/out’, Solomon-Godeau argues against a binary insider/outsider approach to documentary photography: A way forward would be to avoid both these positions and produce work which provides a distanced look at the subject as well as offering some sort of ‘truth’, which may not be the truth.

Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?

 The essay philosophises about “truth status” of photography; Solomon-Godeau refers to the inside/out positions of photographers in relation to their subjects. Sontag believed that Diane Arbus’s photography, what Solomon–Godeau would call an outsider, objectifies people. Whereas “Rosler calls outsider photography “victim photography” (La Grange 2005); both Sontag and Rosler believe that documentary photography takes something from the subject and present only a partial view of them.

Solomon-Godeau says that it is more complex than this. She states “that what is actually the issue is how we know reality” (La Grange 2005), and whether it can be represented. In any case if photography can only show a superficial view then she asks can you tell whether it’s an inside or outside view?  Solomon Godeau proposes that insiders may still not be able to represent the truth whilst outsider photographers may be able to reveal the truth and quotes Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) as an example of the later.

There are of course advantages of both being an insider or an outsider. As an insider you can be more intimate, empathetic or sympathetic with a subject but as an outsider you have the opportunity to be more objective.


Baker, S, Mavilian, S and Harbin, N (2016) The radical eye: modernist photography from the collection of Sir Elton John. London. Tate publishing

Campbell, D. (2012) The myth of compassion Fa2gue. Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

David Campany (2003) Available at: (Accessed: 19 October 2016).

Fenton, J. (2016) Snap judgments. Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

la Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Focal Press.

Ritchin, F. (2014) Syrian torture archive: When photographs of atrocities don’t shock. Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

Rosler, M (1981) Around and Afterthoughts. Available from: (Accessed 18.10.16)

Sontag, S (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sontag, S. (2004) Regarding the pain of others. London: Penguin Books.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2015) Photography: A critical introduction. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.