Documentary Photography (Photography Degree, Year 1, Essay 2)

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Second essay in the first year of my BA Photography course at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). I seem to have misplaced the mark sheet for this so I'm not sure what I got (it doesn't ultimately affect my overall grade for the course anyway as I've passed the first year), but I have the feeling it might have been a C or B-.The article addresses documentary photography and questions if the purpose of documentary photography is to persuade or record. TL;DR: it isn't either of these extremes (as you probably guessed) - it is somewhere in the middle.


Is the purpose of documentary photography to persuade or record?

Dan Foy BA Hons Photography

Module: Seminar tutor: Word Count:

PHOT10058 Malcolm Brice 1099

Is the purpose of documentary photography to persuade or record?The term documentary photography infers that photographs created in this style exist to document record of real-world events. It would appear that the subgenres of this broad classification can be split into one of two credos: either its purpose is to objectively record, else it is just another form of expression, and thereby a vehicle to persuade a viewer into interpreting an event or idea as expressed by the photographer. I suggest that neither approach is attainable in a practical fashion. To illustrate my point I will refer to two photographs: Children Fleeing an American Napalm Strike by Nick Ut, and Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton. Uts photograph, taken during the Vietnam War in 1972, depicts a number of Vietnamese children, all of whom appear to fleeing the plume of arid smoke behind them, and who are clearly in distress. Two of them are screaming, and one of them a pre-adolescent girl is naked. A number of soldiers walk behind the children, and look notably calmer. The photograph is a press photograph and intended to be accompanied by a story, which will inform that the childrens village has been napalm-bombed by friendly forces; the girl, Kim Phuc, has suffered terrible burns that will leave her hospitalized for over a year. Uts photograph is indisputably evocative, and whilst it could be argued that the photograph was taken with intent to indiscriminately record, the image became a symbol of large-scale public opposition to the unpopular Vietnam War. This makes Uts intentions as a photographer somewhat irrelevant in a real-world context. The second photograph, taken in 1855 during the Crimean War, is comprised of what would by a comparatively featureless landscape, if it were not for the cannonballs littering the valley road that snakes through the photograph.


Despite initially appearing much more of an objective record than Uts photograph, it is arguably more constructed to be persuasive. The photograph is one of a pair, with the other photograph showing the road clear of cannonballs. Although it is a matter of some dispute, it would appear that Fenton artificially altered the scene for dramatic effect, in an attempt to persuade viewers that the situations that he photographed were more dangerous than they were in reality, perhaps due to 1850s technology prohibiting photographs of actual wartime action. This sort of direct manipulation became scandalous with instances such as Rothsteins famous FSA image of a skull on cracked earth creating political uproar, suggesting that the general public expect official documentary photographs to be as neutral a record as possible. However, it is also significant to consider what the photographers in question did not choose to photograph. It is unusual to discover photographs documenting the poor living conditions of soldiers at war dating from photographys infancy. Fenton is recognised for his documentation of soldiers and the wartime landscape, but in balance, the lack of photos of documentation of the killed or maimed in action, or those wasted to incidental causes such as the cholera outbreak, is almost as significant and revealing of his intentions. In the words of George Baldwin, a curator more familiar with Fentons work: The soldiers, in that first winter, before Fenton arrived, had inadequate food, inadequate shelter, inadequate clothing. The images that are propagandistic are the ones that show that the soldiers are adequately housed, adequately clothed. (Baldwin, 2007) Created more than a century later, Uts photograph appears to be a world apart from Fentons photograph, depicting the clear stress of an innocent child as she becomes the victim of an attack by friendly forces that is likely to leave her alive, yet deformed for life. If the failures of Fentons work as documentary photography lay within his apparent reluctance to make


photographs depicting the appalling realities of war, the inference is that Uts frank and unashamed photograph is a more accurate record of the realities of organized conflict. However, the more complex reality is that no photograph can be truly objective, and thus no photograph can claim to be an objective and unbiased record. People expect to see photographs compatible with their beliefs. When a layman purchases a ticket for a photo-safari in Africa, he is likely to expect to return with photographs of wild lions, elephants, and traditional African villagers, rather than black people in jeans and vast featureless landscapes. Similarly, the majority of 1970s American public would have been uninterested in photographs glorifying war, just as the 1850s British would have been uninterested in viewing the hundreds of their military wiped out unceremoniously by disease behind the lines. Being a subtractive medium, a photographer must actively decide what to include and omit in each exposure, and this is influenced even if only in the subconscious by the context in which the photograph is made. In many cases, a photographers aim is to persuade a party to adopt his or her depiction of a scene as accurate. However, the full story is not as simple, and for the press documentary photographer there is an additional party to persuade: the picture editor. Uts photograph is dramatic and evocative and is an award-winning piece of documentary and rightly so, but this would not be the case if the photograph depicted a more mundane aspect of life in wartime Vietnam. The reality of press photography - the field in which Nick Ut and other Associated Press photographers operate in is that if a photograph isnt interesting, then it isnt going to be published, and this naturally influences the types of photographs that are taken. The persuasive forces behind Fentons photograph are more subtle. Fenton founded what was to become the Royal Photographic Society, under the patronage of Prince Albert, and according to Susan Sontags book Regarding the pain of others, it was under Alberts insistence that Fenton travelled to the


Crimean Peninsula to become the first European war documentary photographer. Considering that Fentons personal security and access to the war was due to royal appointment, it seems unlikely that the lack of photographs depicting poor conditions at camp or the demoralizing sight of dead allied soldiers is a coincidence. Photographs that are created purely to persuade tend to fail because viewers tend to be attracted to photographs illustrating values and ideas that to a degree they already emphasise with, or are at least aware of, whilst photos taken purely to record fail because they can never be objective both photographer and viewer interpret the scene based on past experiences. The true purpose of documentary photography lies not at these extremes, but in a skilful fusion meeting somewhere in the middle.


BibliographyANON., 2010. Roger Fenton. Wikipedia [online]. Available at: [accessed 8/3/10]. FAAS, Horst, 2000. The Survivor - The Story of Kim Phuc and photographer Nick Ut. Digital Journalist, 0008, pp.8 JEFFREY, Ian, ed., 1997. The Photo Book. London: Phaidon Press. MORRIS, Errol, and BALDWIN, Gordon, 2007. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? New York Times Opinionator [online blog]. 25 September. Available at: [Accessed 9 March 2010] ROBERTS, Simon, 2010. Talk with Simon Roberts (re. Motherland, Homeland exhibition). [Lecture to students and public, Photography, Nottingham Trent]. 4 March 2010. ZEHR, Howard, 2010. Photographic truth and documentary photography. Visual Peacemakers [online blog], 30 January. Available at [accessed 8 March 2010].