Monday, 5 November 2007

The Documentary Photograph

The Document ( Peter Burton)

Critics of early documentary photography repeated the same critique of the medium that had been made against the founding father of documentary film John Grierson - that working class people had been represented as passive victims of industrial capitalism . At best the photograph aimed to pressurise governments into a charitable response to poverty , slum housing or bad working conditions. And at worst the goal was simply to display the skill and humanity of the photographer.

Nevertheless documentary photographs have led to progressive social change that might otherwise have been delayed or not occurred at all. Lewis Hines’ photographs at the outset of the Twentieth Century were used to help end child labour in US factories, Sweatshops and Mines. Tina Modotti made an empathetic representation of the Mexican Revolution in the 20’s and 30’s and here in the UK Edith Tudoe- Hardt worked with the National Unemployed Workers’ Association to highlight the consequences of mass unemployment in depression Britain. The iniquities of Apartheid South Africa were wonderfully represented in Ernets Coles’ famous ‘House of Bondage‘ and Sebastian Salgados’ photos of Workers has undoubtedly contributed to a worldwide struggle for social justice.

However the medium has not escaped the retreat from class politics from the Thatcher period onwards and it is not obvious who, if anybody, has replaced documentary photographers like McCullin, Bresson, Capa, and Salgado.

Whatever the aims of the photographer it is undeniable that the documentary photograph has been and continues to be seen as a threat not just by dictatorial regimes but increasingly by late Capitalist Western liberal-democracy also.

The first big example of censorship was the banning of photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans during their seven year occupation of Japan at the end of WW 2, the photos of Yamhata , Domon and Tomatsu bringing the horrors of the atomic age to the Worlds’ attention only after the occupation ended. Don McCullin , Philipp Jones Griffiths , David Douglas Duncan, Tim Page and Larry Burroughs’ negative representation of Vietnam were significant in turning public opinion against the war . Crucially Eddie Adams’ photo of the cold blooded execution of a North Vietnamese by the Saigon Chief of Police increased the numbers of Americans on anti-war demos dramatically, the numbers increasing again as the smuggled photos of the My Lai massacre emerged.

Government reaction has seen much tighter control, Don McCullin infamously being denied a press pass during the Falklands/Malvinos war. Photographers in Ireland during “The Troubles” were “embedded” with army units- a practice repeated in the recent Iraq war. Technological advances yet again have made absolute control impossible as images of the Abu Ghraib tortures ably demonstrated.

It remains to be seen if there is a downside to the greater availability of high quality images. Will the fantastic quantity of photographs undermine the mediums’ power to both shock and provoke much needed protest and dissent? Or shall widespread availability of easily usable digital technology at increasingly reduced prices make oppression and cover -up increasingly difficult?

Pete Burton

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