Friday, October 25, 2019

Social Documentary Photography

Imagine that you're standing at a street corner, waiting for the light, and it begins to rain. This is an event that simply is, there is no refutation, there is no discussion about the facts of the event. The evidence of your senses is clear. It began to rain.

Imagine now, on a different street corner, on a different day, your walking companion says to you "Chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream!" This is quite a different thing. One can argue about it, one can disagree, this statement is a matter of opinion.

A photograph does a little bit from column A, and a little bit from column B, here. Parts of a photograph, aspects as it were, are simple facts. There was the dog, in the yard. The sun was setting. The car was turning. There is nothing here really to refute, to argue (setting aside issues of whether Photoshop may have been involved). Other aspects, the opinion apparently presented, can be argued.

Consider the photograph of the Migrant Mother, Florence Thompson. On the one hand, there is a woman. There are children. The woman appears worn, tired. She appears to have labored, and also to have suffered. She projects a kind of nobility and grace. It is not clear where the line lies, between merely witnessed facts and an opinion expressed.

In order to be persuasive a photograph's opinions need to be palatable to many. Simply whipping up a photograph that says, in effect, that Donald Trump is a crook, is not going to persuade anyone of anything. The facts of the photo, that here is an old man with improbable hair, are not enough to carry an opinion of criminality to the pro-Trump partisan. The effect of this photograph is, largely, to delight those on one side, and anger those on the other. Nobody's position is altered. If anything, quite the opposite.

This is in contrast to the photograph of Florence Thompson. The opinion, if any, is merely that this woman has some value, some essential decency of character, some nobility of spirit. At a stretch, one might imagine that this extends to other people who might look a bit like Florence, who might find themselves in a similar position. Of course, a few will read something else into the picture. The point is that many of us, many people with differing ideas, can read Florence's character in the same way.

The picture effects a small change, maybe, across a spectrum of opinion. The staunch conservative will find it a trifle harder to blame the problems of the poor on the poor. Words like they are just lazy or they are of low moral character will be a little harder to speak. This man will still vote against the program that seeks to succor the poor, but will find himself a little softer toward them. A fence-sitting liberal might, shifted a hair toward the generous, vote in favor of succor where formerly their vote was in question. A bleeding heart will merely bleed a trifle more copiously. The spectrum of people's ideas move, infinitesimally, in a unified direction.

People's minds are not changed all at once. Even a sudden epiphany is really the culmination of a series of tiny steps. Producing a really radical and angry poster about Boris Johnson isn't going to effect an immense change in anyone's mind, no matter how angry the artist is.

Which leads us around to contemporary social documentary photography.

Much of it is banal trash. It is, in this era, rather chic to photograph locations where bad things happened, or to reproduce some sort of document. While these pictures certainly witness some facts on the ground, they are not facts with the capacity to move. Some cop shot some kid on this street corner, which looks like any other street corner. Ok. So what? Nobody gives a shit about a street corner. Here is a sad letter the kid's sister wrote. Again, so what? It's a piece of paper with writing on it, not a human face. Where is the sister, the mother? Where is the cop?

This is not to deny the tragedy. It is not I that denies the tragedy of the case, but all too often the artist. The artist insists that everything about the tragedy is banal, uninteresting, ordinary. This is, of course, often something of the point, but it is not a point with the capacity to move.

This, ultimately, is why the only pictures in Asselin's Monsanto that are worth a shit are the ones of the people damaged by Agent Orange.

These pictures are accessible, factual, irrefutable. It would no more occur to someone, no matter how pro-corporate, to try to deny the bare facts these pictures witness than it would to try to deny the rain on the street corner. The photographs witness the fact of the girl, of the man. There they are. Ecce homo. The opinions expressed are open ended, although of a kind. You can see the humanity, and all but a psychopath would feel sympathy for their plight. Whether this extends to indicting Monsanto or not is up to you, the viewer.

The pro-corporate viewer is free to merely soften his stance a trifle, remaining pro-Monsanto. The radical hippie is confirmed in his vigorous anti-corporate stance. A fence sitter might finally pick a side. The human sympathy does not easily allow a hardening of a pro-Monsanto, pro-corporate, opinion. Across the spectrum, the human sympathy tends a little away from Monsanto, away from the corporate interest.

One more example. Boris Johnson is known to muss up his hair before every public appearance. His unkempt appearance is, it is perfectly well established, a sham. It works beautifully, because the only possible visual of Boris Johnson is as a clown. It is impossible to make a picture of Johnson in which he does not look ridiculous. It is therefore impossible to make a subtle, non-polarizing, picture of him. Every picture enrages his detractors and delights his supporters, and drives them slightly farther apart.

I have no magic bullet for how to make these things, I really don't know. I do know that making the witnessed facts strong, and the opinion, the representation, mild seems to matter here. I do know that putting a human face on it seems to be important. I do know that making a strong connection to the argument at hand matters. Show us faces, not street corners. Don't be strident.

Let the viewer find their own way to you.


  1. Huzzah. I can't tell you how many times an editor sent me to the location of a tragedy a couple days after, when there is no visual evidence left, for a scene-setter. Why?

    1. I suppose it's worth noting that a scene setter isn't *always* stupid, but you do need a scene to set. Absent the rest of the story you don't have a scene setter, you have a picture of a gas station.