Can Documentary Photography Really Make A Difference?

20th October 2013

When I first thought about this question I thought, ‘Oh yeah, no problem, I know what I want to say, I’ll knock this over toot sweet’.  But as I thought more about how to start, or more about where to start, it became more and more obvious to me that it’s an extremely complex question and so the answer isn’t going to be simple, and it’s not going to get answered ‘toot sweet’.  So where does one start?  I think the start of this question is back in history, to understand where we are now I think I need to document how I think we got here.

I started the first essay in this section back with the American Civil War and how the images made at Andersonville Prison-of-War Camp outraged the populace of the northern states against the Confederacy and the way the prisoners were being held and treated. Slightly later, 1868, Thomas Annan was documenting the slum areas of Glasgow for the Glasgow Improvement Trust and is considered one of the pioneers of Social Documentary, although his involvement was probably purely pecuniary rather than conscience.  Moving on into the 1880’s and we then have Jacob Riis making true Social Documentary images of the Mulberry Bend slums in New York and then Lewis Hine, slightly later, making more Social Documentary images of child labour in America.  Initially these images would have been seen by the public through magic lantern projection shows (early slides) and later through the newspapers as half-tone printing was developed.  The FCA in the thirties used documentary photography to very great effect bringing about the introduction of the New Deal.  It’s without doubt that these early documentarists had success from their efforts, although even then change didn’t happen overnight.

My belief is though that from that point onward the effect that documentary photography had on making change became less simply because the public became more educated and therefore more sophisticated in their understanding, photography became only one facet of the argument put forward, lobbyists, advertising, journal articles, radio and television and other outlets became just as, or even more, important.  That doesn’t mean to say it hasn’t any place in making change anymore, it does, it has a great place in showing graphically the issues involved, but no-one believes that the ‘camera doesn’t lie’ anymore, perhaps as they did at the turn of the 20th century, and whilst the images need to be seen, more and more people realise that there is more that isn’t seen, good and bad, that has a direct meaning to the argument.

Today photography has a very difficult competitor to contend with, television, and particularly satellite television.  Documentary programmes covering any issue you care to name can be covered with moving images, not still, panning shots of the area, not single images that may or may not cover everything, dubbed audio describing, interviewing and bringing the sounds of the scene into the story, instead of written words or silence, and satellite television means that some documentary can also be live, straight from the scene on the other side of the world, not waiting for picture editors to choose images, layout artists, journalists printers, distribution and retail outlets, it’ quick, it’s slick and it gives instant gratification.  So what has documentary photography got to offer that television doesn’t?  Extended effort, that’s what I’m using to describe what happens.  Television is about now, about glamour about manageable bites of information that fit the scheduling slots offered by the networks, which if you miss the programme isn’t always available again immediately to reprise, the depth of investigation is limited, you can’t spend years producing endless hours of video only to cut it down to a couple of hours maximum over several weeks on-air.  Whereas it isn’t that unusual for the documentary photographer to spend several years on a project, making thousands of images to work with a writer to produce a book which takes weeks to read, has in-depth analysis and investigation. Similarly, the same amount of time can be given over to a sustained campaign in the media where, possibly, many more of the images made can be exposed to the public, over a greater extended period of time than the much shorter television programme can.  Critical comment can be rebutted with more and more images, whereas television shows have a limited critique span of time and don’t normally have rebuttal video of the same time duration as the original show(s).  On local issues documentary photography probably has a great deal of influence.  People who look at the images will be more aware of where they were made, what the issues are, and most of all, they affect them directly, whereas television has very limited time to offer to local issues, unless the story raises bigger concerns and then they rush in from all over to cover it.

Documentary photography has other issues too.  When a story is documented by a photographer that has global or even national importance, the story may not make it to publication simply because the photographer lacks  credibility through the lack of status that accrues with fame and celebrity.  The story of Sebastiao Salgado and the Sahel tragedy is a case in point.  Having made many images of the plight of the inhabitants of the Sahel region in Africa back in 1984, he was able to arrange for publication of the images and the back story to them within Europe without too much problem, from which aid, help and money was raised.  The same was not true in the USA where the images were deemed to be brilliant but unsaleable; the publishers money would be at risk, the images were too dark and heart-rending for the public to want to view them, and so no aid came from the richest nation on earth and it was 20 years before a book containing the images and the story was published, when Sebastiao had become a celebrity in the eyes of that nation, and his work was acceptable as a result of the celebrity.

So, back to the original question, ‘Can Documentary Photography Really Make A Difference?’  I would say it can, provided it is used as part of a package of measures to ensure the message is delivered.  Can it do it on its own?  No, it never could really, like most things it was just a lot easier for the pioneers.  Is there a future?  I would really hope so because once we as viewers stop recognising issues that need our support from the images that are placed before us, then we’ll really be on the road to be being truly apathetic.



2 Responses to Can Documentary Photography Really Make A Difference?

  1. Catherine says:

    I appreciate your notion of “extended effort”.

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