25 April 2007

Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes: The Irony of "Vividness"

In a paper - the long, early version of which you can find in the sidebar - I argue that photographers and critics are misguided insofar as they typically suppose that the aim of documentary projects detailing the suffering of others is properly to induce compassion in viewers. This supposition, I believe, tacitly sustains (or perhaps is sustained by) the documentary convention of focusing on individuals precisely because compassion involves vicariously taking on the pain of some specific other individual. In th epaper I also argue, following Hannah Arendt, that this supposition is de-politicizing in specific ways.

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.]

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Blogger Stan B. said...

The public at large has been suffering from image fatigue on just about any given topic in part to the proliferation of photgraphic images on video, the net, camera phones, etc.

Obviously, that has not always been the case. And having lived through it, even as a child, I still remember the impact that the burning napalm girl and the street execution guy had on the American psyche. Those two photos along with the My Lai images did more to turn the public at large against that war than any hundred of marches.

And even today, it took the hooded, electrical wire guy to finally start waking up some Americans to what we have become in this war-- it's no small wonder why they haven't released all the other photos which they themselves acknowledge are far, far worse.

I don't think photos of the poor and destitute will garner that much sympathy or call to action as have those same images in the past. We already walk over many of those same people in real life today.

Yes, we have become immunized to a very large extent, but there is still that fear, that very real fear, that some photo somewhere, somehow will ignite the public's imagination in ways unforeseen and irreversible...

26 April, 2007 01:23  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I hadn't thought about the "fatigue" factor. That would require an historical account of the uses of photography of suffering. In part that is because the research reported in this book was done a quarter century ago (early 80s).

My remarks are not meant to suggest that photographs cannot have effects. Instead, I am suspicsious that photos of suffering individuals will do so. It is then a question of how to depict massive, widespread horror or suffering in effective ways.

26 April, 2007 08:57  
Blogger Unknown said...

It seems to me that "turning widespread social-political-economic problems into stories of melodramatic human interest" is a fundamental part of the way culture works. Problems may often be addressed on a spreadsheet but humans need that connection to story. If there are effective alternatives to melodrama, I suspect that they will still need to make stories clear and emotional (and yet somehow stay within the bounds of "journalistic ethics," restrictions that are not imposed on advertisers, politicians, or print journalists who are often comfortable making no bones about the notion that what they write is a personal interpretation).

It seems true that the larger the issue, the less effective a small-scale story will be in illuminating the bigger picture. Maybe becasue the easy visual nuggets are already so greedily mined by both the pj's and the propagandists. Yet visual successes in raising and altering public awareness and action are not hard to find, from Hine's factory-working children through Minamata and Abu Ghraib.

Is there comparative information that assesses reactions to alternative media and presentations? Might we find that, say, reading a Seymour Hirsch essay is also emotionally engaging but ultimately capable of only limited influence on public decisions?

27 April, 2007 01:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find that documentary photography has been so mis-defined that it may never recover from its inception in Atget. It is true that we cannot remove entirely the biases and prejudices of a photographer but we can try to get pretty close. Documentary photography should simply document as evidence of the physical reality in the same way police photograph documents the evidence at a crime scene. Any emotional charge in incidental. Having said this, now in this current world, which seems to have a massive urge to document anything and everything, ‘documentary’ photography has lost much power, except for those things that provoke popular response (which are often emotional). There is only so much we can document in this world before we are swallowed in a heap of decontextualised snippets.

27 April, 2007 04:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, thought provoking material. Have a look at the distinction I make in my recent piece on the Collective Oculi between the American and European traditions and how Oculi manages to supercede them. I think it might add an interesting dimension to the argument you are making. (the Spark of Accident blog).

27 April, 2007 07:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,
Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I agree that the mainstream conventions of documentary photography are probably not effective in motivating viewers to do something about large, structural problems. [The way people will send money to some disadvantaged person profiled in the newspaper but might not think to do something to address the system that makes poverty or homelessness such a problem came to mind.]

My master's thesis dealt with a related idea. I analyzed what I think is a dominant visual style (and the various forces that went into shaping the style) within the institution of Magnum Photos. I describe a style that emphasizes a synthesis of drama, art, narrative and documentary realism. One argument (besides that this style was a major influence on what is considered good photojournalism) is that this style often creates generalized, abstracted narratives about the "human condition" instead of revealing something specific and concrete about an issue, investigating causes or illuminating broader structural problems.

I agree that most documentary work focuses on individuals, which can’t without text convey much about structural injustices. But, contrary to what you wrote, I think it's often done often in a way that treats the individual as an illustration of a large, abstract notion. This abstracting mode of representation seems to limit what viewers can learn about the world from the images to bland statements, for example, about human dignity and suffering or the brutality of war.

The photos you posted seem to be making abstract statements in the form of an iconic image, rather than to be about the specific individuals depicted. Rather than informing the viewer about the particular causes and implications of events in a locatable time and place, my thesis argued that Magnum photographs often aspire to be iconic, and thus represent supposedly universal themes about humanity. And as such, are probably useless in motivating viewers to do or learn anything beyond feeling general sympathy or to feel resigned -- this is just the way the world is.

Whether documentary images are too preoccupied with the details of certain individuals or are often too abstract, as I've argued above, I'm not entirely sure what the alternative is. Photography is such a limited medium; it can’t describe anything more than what is in front of the lens. Structural problems can perhaps be only explained in words.

Also, the focus on depicting specific individuals is an important way to humanize a subject or resist a common stereotype. In that way I think it’s an important convention. For example, when I search for photos to illustrate a demonstration for the magazine Middle East Report I consciously avoid ones that show Middle Easterners as an undifferentiated mass of angry people, and prefer to use those that show an individual or two in specific detail with the group around or behind them to show the whole protest.

I am definitely dissatisfied with the documentary conventions in terms of how Palestinian refugees are portrayed (lots of photographers like to come to Lebanon to photograph the miserable life in the camps), but I haven’t tried to articulate what bothers me exactly. Your post is helpful in that regard. Thanks!

- Michelle

27 April, 2007 08:07  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for all the terrific comments. Here are some thoughtss that I should pursue at greater length in forthcoming posts.

(1) The conventions are surely not just photographic, but also editorial or commercial. That would mean that if a photographer offers a range of images, editors at news outlets or other venues may well be resposnible for picking those focused resolutely on individuals. I do not know enough about those practices.

(2) This clearly raises the matter of "control" in two senses. First is the interaction of text and images. I think photographers tend to be way to averse to selecting or creating (perhaps with partners) textual collaboration for their images. This is a big topic, but crucially important.

Second, many accomplished photographerss do indeed resist the convention of focusing on individiuals. I make this argument re: Salgado in the paper I've posted in the sidebar. But it is true too of some powerful work by Lange and Peress that springs to mind. I will try to hunt down the examples I have in minid and post them. (Jon: I'll track down your post too!)

Michelle: I'd love to read your thesis!

27 April, 2007 09:25  
Blogger Natasha Mhatre said...

I thought this post from the blog The Situationist would be relevant here. It approaches the question from a psychological point of view. Specifically two teams of psychologistx have made an observation that people are more moved to action when they see an individual versus a mass.

So while such a picture risks detracting attention from the real issue when using the individual melodrama, it might actually be productive in engaging people. Who can then be subsequently informed better? Just a thought.

30 April, 2007 01:57  

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