I always thought that Riis was the first to take ‘socially concerned’ documentary images, but recently found out that Thomas Annan was commissioned by the Glasgow City Improvement Trust to photograph slum areas in the heart of the city. According to the Glasgow University Library website, the aim of the photographic project was to provide evidence for the clearance and demolition of the slums as opposed to actually improving the lot of the inhabitants. The site also posits that Annan’s interest in the project was of a purely commercial nature. This is probably why Annan is relatively unknown compared to Riis, who was a vocal champion of the cause for improving the conditions of dire poverty in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (himself a Dutch immigrant, Riis had experienced the slums at first hand as a child) and firmly positioned himself as a social reformer – his photographs were used as educational tools rather than sold to the authorities.
Nevertheless, the quality of the images is startling, considering the fact that Annan would have had to prepare the collodion plates on the spot, using a bulky view camera on a tripod. Obviously the people had to stand stock still, as any slight movement would have resulted in blurred details, but considering the fact that these images were made in the 1860s, the quality is superb.
Unfortunately the technical limitations of Annan’s equipment meant that he was not able to shoot the interiors of the slums he visited – an advantage that Riis was to have 20 years later with magnesium flash powder. According to the website: “Thirty to thirty five photographs were taken in the three year period between 1868 and 1871” made me smile! A hundred years later, that was equivalent to a roll of film. These days it’s probably half a gigabyte of memory card (depending on the camera’s resolution or the RAW settings). Although Annan’s plates include people, he made no description of them, and very often the fact that they are blurred testifies to the fact that unlike Riis, he did not ask them to pose for the camera.
It’s interesting to consider that photographs were taken at that time to prompt action, presenting a situation or set of circumstances that needed to be ‘corrected’. Victorian photography was all about demarcation, explanation and justification; the illness metaphor (Sontag 1978, Ch 9) was used to describe the corrupt and harmful parts of society, propagating the threat of contagion from the lower classes, underlining the need for hygienic and preventive measures to stamp out the infection or curb the tumorous growth, calling on medical science to treat the abnormal, the diseased, the deviant. There was very little of what a contemporary observer would call humanitarian in the causes: quite the opposite, the motivation was eradication not of poverty per se, but of the poorer classes and their dissolute ways of life. Photography served as a tool to underline the cause, to present it as an indisputable fact, a threat to the common good. The problem with this sort of photography is that it was taken with ostensibly benign motivation, but employed for seemingly ultimately malignant purposes. Even at the outset, photography was fighting a losing battle against those who controlled how the resultant images were presented and received. From the beginning photographic images were used to manipulate opinions and ideas.
What I find surprising in most social documentary is the fact that very rarely do the documentarians seem to question their right to invade the private realms of those they depict – as if the ends (ostensibly a betterment, but also intrinsically tied up with artistic goals and commercial ambitions, to assert oneself as artist or image maker on the market) justify the means (the exposure of circumstances to which the people are subject, very often beyond their immediate or direct control); the subjects are not only denied a voice, but their dignity and right to privacy are overridden, blatantly ignored or reduced to zero by the apparent urgency of the situation. What kind of moral superiority is this? It brings to mind the kind of positivist hegemonic attitude Spivak railed against in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where she asserts that outside attempts to ‘ameliorate’ conditions under which the Other lives can be considered ‘epistemic
violence’ committed against the subject, since in fact the measures are merely being carried out in the name of imperial economic interests.
Indeed, in another broadside, this time on Riis, Maren Stange claims that his lantern slide shows and How the Other Half Lives were primarily about naturalizing the privileged colonial position of the propertied middle classes through social amelioration – concerned with eradicating poverty in a bid to protect the property of the viewers from the threat of criminal elements from those lower classes rather than improving their lot for their own sakes (Stange 1989). Sliwinski (2006) also notes how documentary photography can be viewed as ‘victimology’ where fundamental human rights only appeared as a result of certain benevolent patriarchs being outraged at the atrocities committed against vulnerable groups.
This hegemony of economic interests and globalisation is something that Allan Sekula has also remarked upon and revealed though his work. “With considerable dedication and patience he photographs the effect of this globalisation on the lives of people in all sorts of locations. He combines his photographs with extensive, self-penned texts, that explain, analyse and criticise the situations he encounters.” (Heuvel, p112)