What is the means of documentary photography? According to William Scott “It defies comment; it imposes meaning, it confronts us, the audience with empirical evidence of such nature to render dispute impossible.” (Scott 1973 cited in Price 2009: 93) It aims to show the life of underprivileged or disadvantaged people in their natural environment. This form of photography is intended to educate the viewers of the severe situations that these people face as well as providing them with a truthful, objective and un-arranged scene. This starts the debate on whether the use of aesthetics within documentary has a place or a purpose, or can it desensitise the viewers when they are looking at images that depict suffering? David Strauss writer of Between the Eyes: Essay of Photography and Politics claims that “To represent is to aestheticize: that is, to transform. It presents a vast field of choices but it does not include the choice not to transform, not to change or alter whatever is being represented” (Strauss, 2005: 9) In relation to photography these transformations can be constructed by the photographers choice of camera, colour, lighting and composition. All these decisions that the photographer makes can be crucial to portraying the final outcome in which they desire as well as sending a specific message to the viewers or even to the government. These days especially we are constantly exposed to many of the Worlds problems, whether this being starvation, War or Death. The use of the media has allowed us to see this suffering, however David Campbell states,“Far from changing the world, photographs work repetitively, numbing our emotional capacity and thereby diminishing the possibility of an effective response to international crises.” (Campbell 2012: 3) The use of photography has aestheticised the World, the constant stream of imagery that we see has become the norm in which we are not as impacted by the photographs we see, essentially losing their effectiveness as well as their meaning. However can the way in which a photographer chooses to represent that subject also desensitise the viewer? A photographer in particular who has witnessed the harsh realities of suffering is Sebastiao Salgado in which he spends years on a single project. There are many views on Salgado’s work in which disapproves of his methodology. Ingrid Sischy a writer of the New Yorker in 1991 stated “Salgado is too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures – and with finding the ‘grace’ and ‘beauty’ in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects.” (Sischy 1991 cited in Strauss 2005: 5)
Figure 1. A malnourished, dehydrated woman. (Salgado 1985)
This statement claims that due to Salgado’s choice of subject there should be no aesthetically pleasing element to the photograph as it enhances our passivity towards what we are witnessing.
Figure 2: A refugee from Eritrea, carrying his dying son. (Salgado 1985)
Salgado is stated as many things, a documentary photographer, a photojournalist but he himself says he is a social photographer. He has the ability to get inside the circle of people; these people that rarely let others in, especially photographers. When looking at his work there is a clear intimacy between the photographer and the subject and it because he has been accepted into their World and how they live. Aesthetics within social documentary may then begin to question, “The idea that the more transformed or ‘ aestheticised’ an image is, the less ‘authentic’ or politically valuable it becomes” (Strauss, 2005: 9) this leads to question whether Salgado’s work threatens the boundary between aesthetics and politics?
Figure 3. Korem camp. Ethiopia. (Salgado 1984)
Even though Salgado’s intentions when creating the work was to make social change to the situation he was witnessing, his work is not simply known for that single element. Much of his work has been mainly discussed in regards to the way in which he photographs and represents these people, which can then take away from the meaning of his images.
Figure 4. A child being weighed (Salgado 1985)
Salgado created a project in Sahel from 1984-85 in which at that time Sahel suffered from an intense drought, which caused people to evacuate their villages in order to increase their chance of survival. They found shelter in refugee camps in which many also suffered from severe malnutrition.
Figure 5. Refugee, blinded by sandstorms and eye infections. (Salgado 1985)
This woman suffered through sandstorms and many eye infections causing her to lose her sight. The way in which Salgado has photographed this woman enhanced the criticism of his work. His use of light and composition questions the authenticity in which it seems much more formalised in nature. “Salgado claims that he never stages his photographs, however, the extreme formalism of some of his photos may lead people to believe otherwise.” (Leica Academy – Creative Photography 2013) He also states that he does not want people to look at his photographs and appreciate the light and the palate of tones, but he wants them to look deeper and see what the pictures represent. (Caponigro 2014) Even though this woman is suffering he has photographed her in a way that represents the incredible dignity that these people continue to hold, even though so much pain surrounds them. This then questions ‘Why can’t beauty be a call to action? (Strauss, 2005: 9)In order for people to look at the photographs their has to be a visually compelling aspect to the image, whether this being the artistic look the photographer creates or a subject which manages to hold our attention. Sischy claims that ‘ to aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it.” (Sischy 1991 cited in Strauss 2005: 5) Sischy is uttering that his images are “too beautiful” to represent such tragedy and this is the reason behind the desensitisation of the viewers. This brings to question the idea that depending on the photographer’s intentions, should it determine how they photograph their subjects? A photographer whose methodologies are far different from Salgado’s is Nick Ut, a photojournalist who is well known for a single image. On June 8th 1972 he photographed a nine-year-old girl called Kim Phuc.
Figure 6. Vietnam Napalm. Napalm Girl (Ut 1972)
She ran from her village screaming “Its too hot, too hot”. Her village had been bombed with Napalm, a gelling agent that burns through any material that it comes in to contact with. Burning through her clothes and then her skin. During this time there had been many photographs of the War in which people become passive to what they were witnessing, however it was when this image surfaced that they saw the innocent casualties of this War in which provoked action from the viewers. Nick Uts methodology is different from a documentary photographer due to the fact that he photographers for a New Agency in which determines the way he photographs his subjects. His use of a much wider composition, allows the image to hold as much context as possible, as well as using the light to illuminate all aspects of the scene. The News article tends to be accompanied by a single image meaning he has to make a political statement within a single frame.
Figure 7. Vietnam Napalm Attack. (Ut 1972)
Forty years later he released other images from that day none of which really tell the story like the image of ‘The Napalm Girl’. It is clear that all photographers use aesthetics to portray their story in a certain way.
Figure 8. Vietnam Napalm (Ut 1972)
Even though he has a main subject within his images, he uses the background to his advantage as it allows you to see the environment that they are in, which brings much more meaning as to why he has photographed these people.
Figure 9: Vietnam Napalm 2. (Ut 1972)
There is a significant difference to Salgado’s and Uts work. This could be due to the environments they work in, or it could be due to the fact that the photographer’s agenda determines the way in which they photograph their subjects. This then brings to question, how should these suffering subjects be represented?
Figure 3. Korem camp. Ethiopia.
Figure 6. Vietnam Napalm.(Salgado 1984)
Napalm Girl (Ut 1972) Salgado is clearly captivated by finding the power and dignity that these people hold in which he believes “starvation does not obliterate human dignity” (Strauss, 2005: 48) He does not want to represent these people by the starvation or illness that they suffer from but by how they continue to look for ‘hope’. However if his intentions are to try and make social change should he not photograph in a more conventional style of documentary such as photojournalism? Is this then claiming that documentary is intended to create ‘art’ rather than change? Instead, Nick Ut wanted to capture this suffering in a way that would portray the reality of the situation he was witnessing, in order to shock the viewer and the government, making them stand up for what is right. Both of these photographers have rather similar intentions; their aim is to bring to light these situations that need to change, but the way in which they photograph their subjects sends rather different messages. When looking at these images side by side, the way in which they photograph is immeasurably different. They both use visually compelling elements to draw the viewer into the image. Salgado’s use of high contrast, lighting and composition makes it easier for the viewer to look at the ‘un-look able’. Nick Ut uses aesthetics, but they do not over power his images and therefor his message is evident as his subject is what draws the viewer in. Uts photographs are not discussed in terms of aesthetically pleasing elements within his images, compared to how aesthetics are a key element of discussion within Salgado’s work.
Figure 5. Refugee, blinded by
sandstorms and eye infections. (Salgado 1985)
Figure 7. Vietnam Napalm Attack (Ut1972)
Overall, aesthetics are extremely important within documentary based photography. The way in which a photographer documents their subject is crucial to portraying their story. Some form of visual element is needed for an image to capture people’s attention. Photographers need to make their subject an object of consumption, the composition of an image can decipher whether a viewer simply glances at what they are witnessing or whether they look again forcing that image to stay with that person. Photographs of war and suffering can function in a number of different ways. In one way they convey information that may spark a political debate, in order to make a change to the situation at hand, however in another way it has aestheticised the world. The way in which some photographers document-suffering subjects can be rather controversial, the means of documentary is to document in order to enforce meaning and thereby evoke action. The way in which Salgado represents his subjects could spark debate, as his images are continuously classed as works of ‘Art’ but this does not mean it cannot affect the viewer in the same way that Nick Uts photograph of ‘The Napalm Girl’ does. A photographer has many choices when photographing a subject, and it these choices and the way in which the images are distributed that can determine whether a viewer becomes desensitised to the scenes they are witnessing. It could be stated that images of suffering and misery elsewhere in the world are used as reminders of what we are free from, thereby not compelling us to action but to acceptance. (Strauss 2005: 81) It is not just the media that has desensitised the viewers in which we are exposed to the constent stream of everyday imagery, but the way in which a photographer chooses to document the lives of those who suffer. This then stating that the use of aesthetisisation is a key reason to the act of desensitisation.
I knew this was going to be a very difficult module, not just because I find researching difficult, but I find it difficult to write academic essays. From the very start this became by far the hardest module since being at University. Getting feedback from all my modules over the past three years there has been recurring fault within in my work and that was my research. I never went in-depth enough and that was something that I really wanted to push within this module. I knew from the very start I wanted to focus my research within Documentary as I have always had a keen interest within this genre. However I found it rather difficult to narrow down and make my topic precise, as so much interested me within the field. My first topic was whether photography can change the World and the situation that the photographer was witnessing, however I realised this was a huge topic to explore so I really needing to find something much more specific. I managed to chose a topic due to me noticing that when I looked at Documentary photographs, specifically images of suffering, I was admiring the way in which the photographer had photographed these subjects. I admired the light, the composition, the use of lighting and I noticed I was distracted and that I became desensitised to what I was actually seeing. The image lost its meaning to me and this was when I knew this would be an interesting topic to explore. Throughout practice rehearsals I was extremely nervous to the lead up of my presentation, to the point where I actually felt sick. I now believe this was due to two reason, the idea that I knew I would receive feedback from my lecturers and the main one being that I was not confident with what I had written. I knew that I would receive quite negative feedback, as I knew I could do a lot better. This pushed me to try even harder, to produce an essay that I felt confident with when presenting. This meant that when it came to the actual symposium event I was not as nervous as previous presentations as I had read my essay over and over again and researched much more. At the start of the official symposium presentation I was slightly nervous as I was near the end of the day, I started comparing my essay to others that had gone before me, in which I started to doubt myself. However as the presentation went on I felt much more confident and relaxed. It was actually when it came to the question and answer session at the end of my presentation where I got extremely nervous as you are heading into the unknown. There was the option of getting our peers to ask certain questions that you have told them to, however I decided against this as I felt this went against the research that I had undertaken. I should know topic enough to be able to answer question in regards to what I had just presented. I actually rather enjoyed answering the question as it gave me the opportunity to give my own opinion in which I could not give in an academic paper. I had rather few questions, which made me believe that my presentation was engaging and interesting. In terms of how this has affected my practice, I feel that when representing anyone, I really need to consider what my message is and how this person should be represented. The way in which I represent can be crucial to how a viewer will interpret the image however I do believe everyone reads and image differently. Overall, this research module has made me become a much more confident individual, not just with academic writing but with presentation skills. It has developed my researching capabilities, which will really benefit me in the future. Speaking in public will hopefully be a part of my future career within the photography industry and I feel that with practice I could easily present again. It has been an extremely intense module however the benefits of undertaking it are endless and will stay with me as I continue to go forward.
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