Context & Narrative Part 1 Project 2 Research Point (p27)

“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?”(1)

When I began reading ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) by Martha Rosler (2) I thought she was very unfair on Lewis Hine. He used his photographs depicting child labour to change laws. He revealed something that society had kept hidden and he did it at great personal risk (3). Rosler might disagree with the way that change happened but the point is that it did and Hine’s images were an important part of that. The idea that a hidden group of children in those circumstances could force change themselves with calls for self help is unrealistic. Hine used both his position in society and his knowledge that images were powerful to help. It is beyond one person to change the capitalist system on their own; what Hine did was full of impact and to moralise from a future vantage point is unhelpful.  

However, I think Rosler makes a fair point when she talks about continuing to photograph this area and says that ‘it is no longer possible to evoke the camouflaging impulses’(2) of being helpful or exposing situations that photographers often use, presumably because of the sheer number of times The Bowery and the people in it had been photographed. Visitors knew what they were going to see there – there was no surprise anymore and they weren’t exposing anything that people didn’t already know. She says the men who lived on the Bowery ‘had plenty of experience with the Nikon set’(2). Their circumstances were well known. At that point the photographer is not there to argue ‘for the rectification of wrongs’, and their presence could be called exploitative.  


“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]”(1)

*(I cannot access the link from the UK 8/11/18)

I don’t think images are necessary to provoke change although the initial shock of an image can be powerful. For me personally, education provokes change in terms of behaviour. However, war is different; it doesn’t stem from my personal behaviour and when I see an atrocity I cannot do anything to change it. What I am given when I see photographs from a war is evidence of the human condition which serves as a warning as to what we humans are capable of. This could encourage me to change my voting habits perhaps, it might make me scared about the future or make me feel sad for the people involved, but images can’t keep provoking the same reactions; eventually feelings of numbness set in, along with feelings of powerlessness which are more dangerous and can have the opposite effect to that which was intended. 

It seems to be a psychological fact that we cannot remain shocked by seeing a version of the same image over and over again. When photographs of war were first seen they must have been very shocking, but when we are so used to seeing violence, real or not, the neurological response will not remain the same. 

Several years ago I went to The Imperial War Museum and saw the displays on the Holocaust. The photographs displayed were so disturbing that very quickly I just could not look at them anymore and was forced to leave because I became so emotionally disturbed. The dehumanisation of so many was shocking. Perhaps it was worse for me as some of the images were from Lithuania where my maternal grandmothers extended family had all been killed and so I found myself viewing those images and wondering if these people were my relations, the people whose loss my grandmother had mourned for her whole life. 

The images really helped me to appreciate the scale of what had occurred – I knew the numbers of people involved, but I hadn’t really processed it until that point. But I wonder if part of the reaction for me was that those were personal; each person I saw could have been me, my children, someone I am related to. The threat of a repeat of history hangs over my family permanently. So that particular set of images continue to effect me because the issue does. 

  1. Course Materials by OCA Context and Narrative
  2. In around and afterthoughts Martha Rosler link 7/11/18
  3. 22/11/18