Brief: If you’re interested in the critical debates around photojournalism, try and make time to find out more about at least one of these critical positions during your own work on Part One. Here are some questions to start you off:
- Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense in which work like this is expolitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?
- 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: http://lightbox.time.com/2014/01/28/when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/#1
- Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?
Martha Rosler, In Around Afterthoughts
- 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?
Lewis Hine was an American photographer who was a campaigner for social change. He was a qualified Sociologist and a teacher at The Ethical Culture School before he was a photographer. Hine used imagery to help illustrate and back up his already strong personal beliefs and his appeals for change. In my opinion Rosler is very harsh and unfair on Hine. Rosler appears adamant that Hine and others in his field set out to deliberately manipulate and sensationalise their stories. Firstly, I believe that any coverage, as long as it is not directly exploitative of the subjects within it, has the potential to help bring about change -through increase awareness (and getting people talking and thinking about an issue otherwise unknown or ignored).
‘Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery or (dare we name it?) the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble. Or who, like the astronauts, entertained us by showing us the places we never hope to go.’ -Martha Rosler, In Around and Afterthoughts
Secondly, I believe that because of Hine’s background its clear that he had a strong moral conscience and is therefore unlikely to have taken images that were deliberately manipulative or exploitative to make himself look better (as argued above by Rosler).
Florence Thompson, seventy-five in 1978, a Cherokee living in a trailer in Modesto, California, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “That’s my picture hanging all over the world, and I can’t get a penny out of it.” – Martha Rosler, In Around and Afterthoughts
I can understand Rosler’s point on how documentary photography can be exploitative as the poor or under privileged subjects perhaps believe that they will see immediate reprieve or change and so therefore to take pictures of them that strip them of their diginity or show them in the most wretched and impoverished form is to directly exploit them. However, I do think that this exploitation is worth the chance of change, if not for the subjects themselves but for their children or their children’s children. In the quote above about Doreathea Lange’s famous subject Florence Thompson, and where Lange’s field notes state ‘She thought that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me’ shows that Florence Thompson had something different in mind than to merely incite change. However, Lange’s work did bring about change in many areas including promoting the federal government to immediately send 20,000 pounds of food to hungry migrants in San Francisco.
Rosler also felt that Hine and Riis (Jacob Riis, Danish-American reformer and photojournalist) believed that the world could be improved by human effort alone and she insists that photographing poor living conditions, work practices and poverty does not bring social change. She believes that this leaves the poor to rely on the middle and upper class viewers to incite change based on what they have viewed in the media and this is not a good long-term strategy – she believes that giving the upper classes such stature only reinforces the heirachy and widens the gap between rich and poor.
Although I do understand the points raised by Rosler I think it would be difficult to prove that photographers such as Riis, Hine and Lange had no positive effects on the welfare of the lower classes/immigrants etc. Obviously there are also documentary photojournalists who’s intentions were not as pure as these social reformers but to some extent I still think that any coverage is better than nothing, it would be a generalisation to say that everyone in the middle and upper classes has no conscience and would like to be given a higher status above others – people must become aware of a situation before they can ever begin to act.
Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
- Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change?
I definitely think that images of war are necessary to provoke change, I think that regardless of how the imagery is interpreted by the viewer it is important that photographer’s continue to document the horrific events that occur so that they are not simply forgotten about. In this day and age where images are so readily available, a lack of coverage would make the event nonexistent to many. How can we bring about change when society and their leaders are unaware of the severity of the violence?
Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses?
In her essay entitled ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ Sontag writes about how people in this day and age are less easily shocked or disgusted than they used to be:
‘As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games. Imagery that would have had an audience cringing and recoiling in disgust forty years ago is watched without so much as a blink by every teenager in the multiplex. Indeed, mayhem is entertaining rather than shocking to many people in modern cultures.’ – Susan Sontag
I do completely agree with what Sontag is saying, I do believe that people are becoming used to shocking imagery and in turn it is losing its ability to shock. Especially when we look at tennagers and young people and the violence that they are in contact with through computer games and tv programmes. Many popular video games are based on real life war situations where the gamer is encouraged to think and act like a solider and to kill and injure others without a second thought. If this kind of violence is starting to be considered as the norm then how can real life images expect to shock and in turn help to bring about change?
Martha Rosler, In Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf
Lewis Hine – Masters of Photography, Ruell Golden 2014, Goodman Books