‘Shady commerce’ or ‘Complex contract’

Sontag warned of the dangers of assuming the objective nature of photographs, as well as the honesty of the photographers themselves:

despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth” (1977, p 6)

Thus, even when they are attempting to make faithful recordings of reality, photographers are subject to the demands of aesthetics as well as the dictates of their own personal and political persuasions when composing and producing images, and as such they “are always imposing standards on their subjects” (Sontag 1977, p 6).

Gross et al concede that there is a “complex contract” made between documentarian, subjects and audience involving standards of truth while at the same time expressing a personal ‘artistic’ vision. This contract would appear to place “incompatible demands” on the image maker: “On the one hand there is the role of discovery and observation, and on the other, of invention and composition” (1988, p 20) while this dilemma is not restricted to photography, it is the medium where it assumes a particularly salient character.

Lind & Steyerl (2008) also discuss this apparent dilemma that a documentarian inevitably faces between letting the subjects express themselves without getting too involved in choreographing their activities on the one hand, while creating images that are aesthetically unique on the other. Nevertheless, they conclude that this challenge “also creates the drive of a documentary quest for ever more authentic representations of the real” (ibid, p 15). They discuss how machines of propaganda and disinformation have created a more skeptical and media-literate audience, who constantly mistrust and doubt the truth of documentary as well as the institutions of power/knowledge that rely on them for authority. As they see it, not only has documentary’s credibility come under scrutiny with its shift into the realm of the art gallery, but there is also a fundamental problem in documentary practice itself: “The basic tension within documentary forms is the conflict between artifice and authenticity” (ibid, 17).

Trinh T. Minh-ha asserts that for documentary to work, the “truth has to be made vivid, interesting; it has to be “dramatized” if it is to convince the audience of the evidence, whose “confidence” in it allows truth to take shape” while the production and consumption techniques must remain outside the image frame “according to the rules of good and bad documentary” (1991, p 35). She goes on to insist that the documentary needs to be aware of its own artifice:

A documentary aware of its own artifice is one that remains sensitive to the flow between fact and fiction. It does not work to conceal or exclude what is normalized as “non-factual,” for it understands the mutual dependence of realism and “artificiality” in the process of filmmaking. It recognizes the necessity of composing (on) life in living it or making it. Documentary reduced to a mere vehicle of facts may be used to advocate a cause, but it does not constitute one in itself; hence the perpetuation of the bipartite system of division in the content-versus-form rationale.” (ibid, p 41)

This dramatization of documentary can even be traced right back to the roots of the genre – as is commonly cited, the origins of the notion ‘documentary’ come from Grierson’s review of Flaherty’s film Moana, which was in fact a docu-fiction, since Flaherty staged a tattooing event that had been obsolete for many years among Samoans, as well as misrepresenting the ‘Siva’ as a heterosexual dance between bride and groom, whereas in fact it was originally a dance between brother and sister (Jolly, 1997).

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