Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes: The Irony of "Vividness"
I don’t want to rehearse my entire argument here. I want instead to take another tack. Let’s say that Arendt is wrong, that her arguments about compassion are flawed in one or another way. That would mean that my argument would be flawed too. I do not think this is so, but let’s entertaian the possibility just for the sake of argument. I want to suggest that the conventions of documentary photographers would still be misguided in more or less purely practical terms.
Let’s start with the purposes of documentary. Artist and critic Martha Rosler remarks that “documentary engages with structural injustices, often to provoke active responses.” That seems to me to be an unobjectionable characterization.
Next, is the issue of photographic conventions. I think it also is unobjectionable to claim that documentary images tend to be preoccupied with individuals. Consider the well known images I've for this post (credits at bottom). I did not choose them at random, but they are exemplars nonetheless.
So, it seems to me that there is some tension at work here between the notion that documentary grapples with “structural injustices” which are by definition general or aggregate and this conventional preoccupation with individuals and their particular travails. How does this tension work itself out in the process of inducing “active responses” among viewers?
Each of these photographs, it seems, is meant to capture some general phenomenon - poverty, displacement, war, labor, racism, sexism - but to do so by focusing on the predicament or experience of a particular individual. In so doing, each photographer is hoping to induce a response in her or his audience.
Among students of the media this strategy is said to be an effort to exploit "vividness." This essentially amounts to an effort to depict general patterns or phenemona through the prism of individual or personal experience. By contrast a "pallid" representation would rely on e.g., statistical information to convey the pattern or phenomenon. In any case, I have been reading an experimental study of the impact of news media and, it turns out, that "vivid" presentations of such aggregate level phenomena as unemplyment or environmental degradation have little or no effect on the ways audiences react to problems. As the authors note: "Human despair and devastation poignantly depicted, did not generally add to viewers' sense of national priorities." Later they reiterate this claim: "stories of personal suffering, pwerfully depicted, generally did not raise the priority viewers assigned to target problems."
The evidence from this experimental study clearly is not definitive (due minimally, e.g., to standard worries about external validity); but it is suggestive. And it suggests, I think, that perhaps the conventions of "documentary" photography, conventions that have been embraced by, for example, news media and humanitarian organizations seeking to raise awareness of human suffering and funds to alleviate it, may well be counterproductive. Vivid presentations may, by turning widespread social-political-economic problems into stories of melodramatic human interest, actually undermine the capacity of individuals and organizations to take remedial or preventive action.
[Photographs © Walker Evans, Luc Delahaye, Dorothea Lange, Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Roy DeCarava, and Gordon Parks respectively.]