Blurring the distinction between fact and fiction

Documentary photography tends to focus on the other as serious subject matter, from exotic natives adorning the pages of National Geographic to victims of the system or sufferers of disease or abjection. As Mary Panzer observed:

exotic subjects can be found at home, simply by crossing the boundaries erected by class, political affiliation and cultural taboo. Long before photography, crime and impoverishment provided highly popular subjects for illustrated books, articles, prints and engravings. Photographic studies of the streets of New York, the sewers of Paris, and the back-alleys of London, Shanghai, Calcutta and Rome continued this well-established tradition. The hellish environments created by industry provided fresh turns on old subjects, often accompanying reports on the need for reform” (2005, p 12)

According to Stephen Bull, the link between documentary and a humanistic concern for those alien to and removed (by geography and/or class) from the viewer was forged early on with the first documentary films of Grierson and Flaherty, and this “moral compassion for the plight of others in situations less fortunate than the audience carried over into the term’s use in photography” (2004, p 3). He goes on to note (citing Solomon-Godeau) that the visual tropes of victimhood and devastation are common to the genre and tend to be repeated, while the images themselves fail to reveal the political and economic causes behind the subject matter.

Most fictional and tabloid gossip stories concern themselves with the lives of wealthy and celebrities, while serious documentary imagery tends to take us to the opposite extreme of society and reveal its lower strata. This has a lot to do with power, since as Ritchin points out, all photographic images are only really simulations, and “the more powerful a subject is, the more he will control the simulation, while weaker and poorer people are often photographed to conform to generic but frequently less flattering imagery
(2009, p 149). My aim is to reverse this trend in enabling these disabled subjects to gain power over how they are represented.

According to Gerry Badger (1988) “every photograph is a fiction constructed by the photographer” but this does not prevent photographic images from revealing a larger ‘truth’; nevertheless, he concedes that “the road to that truth is set with devious pitfalls, flagrant cul-de-sacs, and blatant misdirections“. Appreciating the relationship between photographed images and reality, their ‘specificity’ and “imagined lack of any mediation between world and image, places a particular moral responsibility upon the practitioner.”

While current trends in TV and film production tend to blur the distinction between fact and fiction (reality TV shows, docudramas, dramatised versions of real life stories, etc), Gross et al claim that most of what we know about the world comes from fictional rather than non-fictional sources:

Stories have always been the primary vehicle of teaching and learning, and nowadays it is the mass media, and television in particular, that tell most of the stories to most of the people most of the time” (1988, p 27)

The power the media wield can best be perceived in images and information concerning communities that are furthest removed from the mainstream audience. Such stories can give “audiences travelogue glimpses of cultural exotica” resulting at best in a kind of identification with the marginal group, at worst in demands for assimilation rather than respecting diversity or a reinforcing of stereotypes and pretexts for excluding groups from the mainstream. The authors use a quotation from Walter Lippmann’s seminal Public Opinion:

The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those perceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception” (Lippmann 1922, pp 89-90).

In conclusion, the authors suggest that image producers and distributors take a “moral pause” for ethical contemplation of the consequences of their actions before creating and disseminating images of others.

With ever-increasing ties between the Pentagon and Hollywood and commercial TV networks (Ottosen, 2004), more events are being staged specifically for media workers and news audiences (two notable examples are the Jessica Lynch “rescue operation” and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue right outside the hotel where media workers were staying, ostensibly by Iraqi citizens with the assistance of US war machinery); journalists are embedded and instructed what they are permitted to report and ask questions about, or worse, become US military targets when they attempt to conduct interviews or deliver reports from the side of the enemy (Knightley, 2003).

Fred Ritchin (cited in Panzer 2005) observed the tendency in the media towards entertainment and sensationalism:

Where sensation bypasses information, photojournalism too often becomes nothing more than a perverse voyeurism, responding to nothing but the desire to be entertained, not the desire to know” (pp 25-26)

The myth of documentary photography’s realism is upheld by the techniques generally employed – close-quarter immediate shots of subjects who appear oblivious to the cameraman’s presence, fly-on-the-wall type insights into worlds previously denied access to the viewer, though as Hannula points out, the protagonists are nevertheless affected by the presence of a camera (2004, p 26). Any hint of the presence of the intermediary medium detracts from the assumed intimacy of the images, exposes their contrived nature and breaks down the myth of being face to face with the subjects portrayed. As Gross et al put it, “effective art requires the audience to suspend disbelief — even if the film is a documentary. Being reminded that the images have an author disrupts the fantasy” (1988, p 23).

On the other hand, as Ritchin (2009) has observed, some postmodern image-makers are intent on making the mediation of the camera clearly visible or understood, including themselves, other crew members or stray pieces of equipment in the shot “to make sure that viewers don’t fall into an easy complicity with the
process” (p 146). In the Benjaminian sense of not being concerned with the product alone, but with the means of production as well, since interrupting the dramatic process “compels the spectator to take up a position towards the action” (1998, pp 98-100). Although this is something I have strictly avoided, even to the point of rejecting images in which a bag or piece of equipment I had inadvertently left lying around is visible, I am considering including myself somehow in this project.

In an attempt to achieve a certain level of verisimilitude, I do not use flash and ask my subjects not to look directly at the camera. For this project I will be combining images where subjects are both ignoring my presence and acknowledging it – something I have not tried in the past. Will this destroy the film experience or be construed as self-indulgent? I guess it depends on how much of it there is, as well as the views and expectations of the viewers. I recall the sequence in Cocksucker Blues, where we catch a glimpse of Frank with a camera to his eye during a panning shot; the inclusion is deliberate but I would not say self-indulgent – we are merely reminded of the filmmaker’s presence, exploding the myth of fly-on-the-wall, and reminding us that Frank has been granted full access to film everything we are seeing. As Trinh T. Minh-ha observed:

The filmmaker/camera-operator should either remain as absent as possible from the work, masking thereby the constructed meaning under the appearance of the naturally given meaning, or appear in person in the film so as to guarantee the authenticity of the observation” (1991, p 55).

Barthes also drew attention to the fact that filmed objectivity is merely the sign of objectivity, and that truth claims are actually just a style – “the style of ‘verism’” (1977, p 18).

As Lippmann suggested, being witness to an event is actually bringing something to bear on the event one has witnessed, all the more so if one takes something away from the scene of the event – be it photographic images, written accounts or even memories that are then transformed into verbal eyewitness account – these are transformed by the very act of ‘taking’:

Few facts in consciousness seem to be merely given. Most facts in consciousness seem to be partly made. A report is the joint product of the knower and known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes” (1922, p 80).

The observer is always selective and usually creative!

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