Selecting the images to fit the political agenda

In theory, photographs are used to back up or to prove contentions made in the article. They are the visual evidence, the facts of the matter. In actuality they needn’t perform that role. They only need to appear, to give the appearance of evidence. Beyond this they can do anything. Their factualness is never questioned.” (David Levi Strauss on the use of photographs in Newsweek, 2005, p 30)

man likes signs and likes them clear” (Barthes 1977, p 29)

Barthes wrote of how images in the press are selected according to the prior knowledge readers are assumed to possess:

the reading closely depends on my culture, on my knowledge of the world, and it is probable that a good press photograph (and they are all good, being selected) makes ready play with the supposed knowledge of its readers, those prints being chosen which comprise the greatest possible quantity of information of this kind in such a way as to render the reading fully satisfying” (1977, p 29).

Readers do not want to be challenged nor have their assumptions or stereotypes questioned. As such, editors make demands of photographers that their images conform to certain ideas the reading public have on specific issues. As Benjamin noted, since the media are “in the hands of the enemy“, it is difficult to get revolutionary work published (1998, p 91).

David Levi Strauss (2005) also wrote of the “institutional myth of objectivity in journalism” (p 15) among journalists working in US mainstream media outlets, and further noted:

The camera-eye doesn’t think, it recognizes. It shows us what we already know, but don’t know that we know. Its syntax is less constrained than its grammar, so the way images are put together is important” (2005, p 110).

On the subject of documentary, Arthur Danto makes the very shrewd observation that “since the world does not deserve beauty… [a]rtistic truth must accordingly be as sad as human life itself” (Danto 2002, p 51) and as such documentary always tends to deal with marginalised people and ‘serious’ subjects; the abject segments of society. It just so happens that these are the people who have least control over how they are represented by documentarians and the media.

According to Badger (1988) all photography has the potential to be exploitative, while portraiture is “inherently exploitative” and photographers are required to “proceed with consideration, awareness, and humility.” He expands this idea:

Exploitation of subject by photographer might be viewed as a continuum, ranging from the mildest at one end to the grossest at the other. Can one therefore define, and quantify, a ‘benign’ as opposed to a ‘malignant’, an ‘honest’ as opposed to a ‘dishonest’ exploitation? We must ask a number of pertinent questions in each case. Precisely how has the photographer ‘exploited’ the subject? Did the photographic transaction take place with the subject’s prior knowledge or consent? What is the purpose of the image? Has the subject been allowed or denied a voice? Does the picture appear to serve the ideological good or ill? (An especially tricky one this).

Although he then goes on to commend Hine for possessing “well nigh unimpeachable” moral credentials, as I have observed elsewhere, his photographs of industrial accidents, taken albeit with the moralist motive of effecting social change, in fact served to stigmatise disabled people as worthless, while his imagery of cognitively impaired children was used to support the cause of the eugenics movement.

As Shusterman points out, there is automatically a tension created between the photographer and subject despite the latter’s willingness to be photographed, and he puts this down to “the threat of permanently representing the self as an object in ways that the self as subject may not want to be represented or defined” (2012, p 71). I have looked at the ‘exploitative’ work of Evans and Agee in depth elsewhere, but a conversation between Errol Morris and William Stott seemed to me to be particularly pertinent here. Stott was discussing an image that he said “seemed to explode the book” – the Gudgers on Sunday, which was not included in the book:

His point is that the image, and the impression that George Gudger gives, is totally at odds with the impression of him one gets when viewing the images published in the book:

It just went against the view that “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” gives of George — a beaten down, not terribly bitter yet, but you know he’s going to be bitter soon, defeated man. Here you see this photo that’s not in the book — and George Gudger is just radiating life and virility and joy.” (Stott in Morris, 2009)

By showing them in the way that they wanted to, (Morris apologises on their behalf and claims that the editors wanted to see an American Gothic aesthetic) Stott accuses Evans and Agee of denying their subjects the humanity they deserved, and instead portraying them with “the kind of expression people are supposed to wear in documentary photos dealing with social problems“.

Here is where Stott reveals an interesting slice of history, where he claims that Evans was in opposition to Stieglitz and the pictorial school of photography, which had a very theatrical and romanticized approach. As such Evans was adamant that nothing would be touched or interfered with for aesthetic reasons, and is often quoted as saying “God made that. I wouldn’t change it,” further fuelling the myth of documentary photography’s objective nature and truth claims.

Elsewhere James Curtis (1986) shows an alternative image of Floyd Burroughs that he claims was never shown because it did not fit with the atmosphere of poverty and anxiety that Evans wanted to show through Burroughs’ expression: “The hint of a smile or cynicism would have undercut the message Evans sought to convey” (1986, p 11).

Curtis also points out how fellow FSA photographer Dorothea Lange considered herself a “clinical observer” of reality and “committed to a direct, unmanipulated recording of events” who famously had the following words (a quotation from Francis Bacon) pasted on the door of her darkroom:

The contemplation of things as they are
Without substitution or imposture
Without error or confusion
Is in itself a nobler thing
Than a whole harvest of invention

Yet, as Curtis goes on to reveal, the most famous of her images was deliberately orchestrated and finally retouched in the darkroom:

Lange never recorded Migrant Mother’s name, eliminated her older daughter from all but the first posed photograph in the series, moved the young children in and out of the scene, and directed her subject’s every gesture. Then in the darkroom she removed the last traces of the one instinctual motion that Migrant Mother made” (1986, pp 19-20)

Although Curtis does in fact concede that Stryker was insistent that the FSA photographers follow social science techniques of the day, with subjects remaining anonymous, and as such “Migrant Mother remained nameless by design, not oversight” (p 4). This does not excuse the retouching of the negative, however! As far as the orchestration of the sitters goes, Lange was a professional studio portrait photographer, and she had a clear understanding of her audience, as well as the assignment she was out to make pictures for.

Although the pictures from the Migrant Mother series were first published in a San Francisco newspaper, the enterprise belongs in the realm of art rather than photojournalism. As the several exposures she took of the scene show, Lange sought to create a transcendent image that would communicate her sense of the migrants’ condition. She created a portrait that incorporated elements she knew her contemporaries would understand and find worthy of support” (ibid, p 2).

As this series shows, Lange got the sitters to pose in different ways as she moved in closer. The final image shows the original unretouched print including the offending thumb, which was later removed.

Just how many other iconic Lange images were staged or retouched is unknown. This first image was surely created by Lange, while Curtis suggests that the object in the second image was probably thrown by Lange to attract the attention of the child and complete the composition:

Although a lot of my work will be staged, I am doing it on the understanding that my subjects will have a say in how they are represented. I like to think of the creation of a documentary work as performative process, taking into consideration the interactive and collaborative processes at work behind any image that claims to show people going about their daily lives. As Shusterman (2012) points out, reducing photography solely to its output – the photographic image – is limiting the potential for an expanded aesthetic experience of the medium; as he puts it, “there is more to photography than the photograph” (2012, p 68). The setting up of the image, finding a suitable viewpoint, asking the subject to stop, move or perform some act – all these form part of the collaborative dramatization, the “performative, temporal dimension” of photography that is very often overlooked:

The performative process of photography provides a heightened, framed moment of enjoying something together and underlying that sharing by an intentionally collaborative creative act that witnesses it.” (2012, p 71)

Peter Davis (2005) speaks of the ‘burden of representation’ that comes as a necessary condition of being granted the privilege of entering the lives of others to photograph them. While “collaborative storytelling can mitigate misrepresentation” as reminds us, “such collaboration takes time” (2005, p 61). This may be for me a fundamental distinction between what is regarded as photojournalism and documentary (although this is not strictly true, since some photojournalists take on extended projects, while Trinh cites documentarians who are quick to leave the scene).

My problem is this idea of victimology, or being a mere tourist in another’s reality, free to leave at will when the situation becomes difficult or untenable. Photography here works more in the interests of the photographer than those pictured. Benjamin noted the tendency of the photograph to make everything seem more beautiful, even “turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment” (1998, p 95).


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