Reflections on Part 1

From the course text:

Now that you’ve reached the end of Part One, reflect on what you’ve learned in your learning log or blog.

  • What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up?

Before reading part 1 my ideas about documentary photography were that it was essentially the same thing as photojournalism, perhaps more considered or a collection of images as opposed to a singular image that could be used for a newspaper front page. It was about producing a record of something or exposing something for the public good. I think there was something of a feel, and perhaps there is an echo of it still, about documentary feeling more authentic in monochrome; not that a colour image couldn’t function in the same way, but that it would be more sensational, more tabloid than a monochrome shot.  

• What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?

Liz Wells(1) says it is ‘difficult to distinguish one kind of photographic practice from another,’ and I think that is true. The lines between these styles of photography are blurred, the people who work in these areas has changed or is evolving.

Photojournalism is disappearing. As Wells says in  Photography: A Critical Introduction(1), local people are now given cameras and the photojournalist is replaced with the citizen journalist. Digital allows for it.  With the requirement of knowledge of the technical aspects of photography gone – understanding of the peculiarities of various  films, the production of negatives and prints – it makes sense.  Local people are on the spot, understand the issues, and are better placed to produce images that are often seen as more authentic. They are seen as an insider and knowledge and authenticity is (sometimes wrongly) assumed.

Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence. And yet, in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic “fact,” the genre has contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.” – Allan Sekula

Reportage seems to be an area where the photographer, rather than standing back and attempting a purely objective stance, gets more involved the action. Wedding photographers often describe their style as reportage. Nan Goldin worked in this style; she was an insider. There is an attempt to seem more honest, to record even small insignificant details that give the viewer another level at which to understand and connect with the subject. 

For me, art isn’t telling a story as such, but rather expressing a message. Often, art can’t be viewed as a series of images, even if it is produced that way. Documentary photography has a clear meaning, provided by the photographer. But in art photography, Paul Seawright says that a space is created for the viewer to create meaning; so, much of this depends on the context in which the image is viewed. Allan Sekula is quoted in Wells:

“Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” – Allan Sekula


Personal Reflections:

My study of Part 1 of the course began in November 2018 and is not yet totally concluded as it has taken a lot longer than anticipated to update and tidy up Expressing Your Vision for assessment. I haven’t actually made any images specifically for this course yet! That is partially because I am acting on tutor feedback I received for Expressing Your Vision and am trying to be diligent in completing and adding to the blog the exercises and research as I go along so that those inform the photographic work I produce. However, I also have a slight sense of confusion about how to approach my first assignment.

As usual, the course text and associated reading has taken me off in all sorts of strange directions and added a lot to my understanding of photography. Documentary photography is not a genre I find myself drawn to, but I can appreciate the value of it, particularly when it’s ideas are manipulated by artists such as Joan Fontcuberta.

During this part of the course I found myself very excited and amused by the idea of spirit photography and I think it is something I will pursue, particularly for assignment two. My grandmother was a psychic medium and I find the idea of exploring various metaphysical and religious views interesting and have visited a medium to have a reading as part of my initial work on this.

Bibliography and References 

  1. Wells, L. (2015). Photography. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.