Photojournalism is a genre of photography that is most often brought to the public domain by the photo-editors of newspaper and magazine publications. The photo-editors make choices to suit their publication’s place in the market, ownership, editor in chief and political stance all of which are non-separate realities. So whilst there can be criticisms of photojournalism that might be realistically about the curation of photojournalism there is also the criticism of photojournalism that looks more squarely at the uses photojournalism can have and the positives and the negatives that are inherent to the genre.
Photojournalism at its best can bring imagery of events to a viewing public, that they might otherwise be unable to thoroughly conceive of from text alone. We can ask whether there is strictly speaking a necessity for this? Do many of the viewing public have any ability to effect change or is change mostly steered by those who have power. And to some degree whether the man in the street might feel that his one voice can be added to many, the curators of the photographs are largely influenced by their news outlet’s proprietors’ associations and established political stance. So are some images that come to the general populous just provided, mostly for sales and are we then only voyeurs who effectively gossip about world events?
Martha Rosler believed that the social conscience of some photographers helped contribute to this sort of a reality. She states that, ” Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth, and reformist documentary (like the appeal for free and compulsory education) represented an argument within a class about the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below,” [In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)]. She asks us, “which political battles have been fought and won by someone for someone else?” (Ibid).
Susan Sontag has argued that high impact photographs of atrocities have, over time, deadened the possible public response to visual war reporting and charity campaigns for financial contributions to disasters. She states, “the vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary – making it appear familiar, remote (“it’s only a photograph”), inevitable” (P20-21, Sontag, (1978), On Photography). I am inclined to agree in that in some instances this can most certainly be the case. I am also inclined to state that many unconsciously work to be numb to these photographs as they are more difficult than they wish to have to handle. Yet it’s clear that denial of atrocity is easier when an atrocity isn’t known to be visually documented. Photographs can provide, to some degree, a record that something horrendous was happening. The voyeurs of horror have the opposite issue with these images.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau argues the Insider/Outsider difficulties of documentary photography in her essay Inside/Out. The essential issues in her observations are the difficulties of a polarisation of empathy or voyeurism. The insider may over empathise and lack objectivity with and from their subject. The outsider may be so lacking empathy for the reality of their subject and their daily life as to photograph them exploitatively without compassion. She states, “the terms of this binarism are in fact more complicated, indeed far more ambiguous than they might initially appear” [Solomon-Godeau Essay – Online] The complications of the many possibilities between the polarised extremes that can be used as levellers of photography as an art form are however part of documentary. Solomon-Godeau reminds us though that it is a “truth of appearance” (Ibid) that we are looking to find. That “the nature that speaks to our eyes can be plotted neither on the side of the inside nor outside but in some liminal and as yet unplotted space between perception and cognition, projection and identification” (Ibid). And there we might search for the mapping co-ordinates of intention and truth if we’re capable of it.
Sontag, S, (1978), On Photography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
Rosler, M, (1981) In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography), available online [http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf – Last Accessed 25/02/2017]
Solomon-Godeau, A, Inside/Out available online [http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf – last accessed 25/02/2017]