What makes a document? – What makes a document post

The next exercise its to read the post “What makes a document” on WeAreOca ensuring each link is visited. I need to then make a substantial and authoritative reply expressing my opinion on the topic and refer back to other contributions. Posted in 2011 and with 75 responses I may be a while.

What makes a document?

In English literacy when you get an exam question you are often asked to refer to the context of the novel or poem within your response. This way you show a greater understanding of what you have read. Why was it written, who was it written for, who wrote it, what was their background or agenda for writing it, when was it written, what historical events were happening at the time to influence the writer? How and why was it published? What vocabulary did they choose, what language devices, how effective were these and what was the effect on the reader? You have to be able to answer all of these to demonstrate complete understanding of the text. Great when you have all that information to hand and just have to make learn it. However, if you just “read” a novel without knowing any or all of the above does it make it any less of a novel? Do you get any less enjoyment out of it? Just as listening to a piece of music can make you feel happy or scared without knowing it was written in a major or minor key.

The same can be said of a photograph; to truly have full understanding you need to know the context in which it was taken etc, but there maybe difficulty in obtaining all of the knowledge that you can apply in literature, as you may not always know the full history or histories behind it.But does this make it any less a document? Therefore I stand by the belief that any photograph is a document. If that document gains more significance or importance due to context and possibly time remains to be seen. I don’t think time has to pass for a photograph to have historical importance or gain the label historical document. The image of Neil Armstrong on the moon was historically important the moment it was taken as was Tank Man by Jeff Widener. The first digital photograph ever taken (whenever that was) had historical importance. Historical definition being of or concerning history.

Having read the entire post and all the responses I still stand by what I have written above and the general consensus on the forum is that a photograph is a document, stat.After showing us two images and giving us the background stories behind both Jose asks:

is it really context that makes a document? Or is it time?

The first image for most of us is self explanatory; it is a hot air balloon depicting Colonel Gaddafi, we can more or less guess it is in the English countryside, probably at a balloon festival (I mean would anyone really commercially offer flights in such a contentious, even then, balloon? It could have been taken to record the festival or just due to a chance happening. Whilst out and about in Milton Keynes once, I happened to come across a Virgin balloon getting ready for take off and snapped a few frames as it was, for me, an unusual sight. It could have been taken as it is an amusing metaphor; Gaddafi was always said to be full of hot air and rhetoric, his ego larger than life etc etc.But that is my interpretation. His die hard supporters may look at this image and feel sorrow and anger, as we are always being told, photographs are polysemic after all.

The second is possibly a little harder to read. I’d guess that it was from a family album due to the discoloured corners that would have come from sticking it in. Therefore assume it was either family, close friend or possibly both. I can tell they are both men; a soldier due to the uniform but without knowing the precise details not the country, and a priest. The priest’s outfit pins the location to Mediterranean/European but then I’d have to give up.

The background story behind the capture of the first does not necessarily change how you first perceived the image, at the end of the day it’s a well taken, sharp image of a balloon that documented a day out and a chance encounter. What makes it more interesting today is the events that unfolded in Libya then, and continue to unfold today due to the power vacuum. But this post isn’t going to be about politics…It was originally a document of a day out, and as Jose said he “didn’t think of it as any more than something purely anecdotal, a good dinner table conversation starter.” It then became a teaching document as well as a document of a set time in history. I’d love to know what they did with it after!

The family snap shot becomes more interesting due to the history of the man, not the history of the image. Knowing that he had to escape and hide to avoid execution (without which Jose would not exist) that he hid in what sounds like horrendously scary conditions (if word of mouth stories are true and not subject to a little embellishment) adds a poignancy to the photograph. You feel more emotionally invested in it, but again it does not make it less or more of a document because of better understanding.

Reading all the responses and following the links also gave greater insight into certain areas but before I reference the links I want to comment upon some of the replies:

Amano on 27 August 2011 at 2:18 pm wrote:
One of the more interesting books on Photography that I have read is Photography: a very brief introduction by Steve Edwards… he states that the photograph can never really be separated from being both a document and a work of art. With an individual photograph, the extent to which it may be art or document can be determined and certainly many images lean to one side or the other.

Interesting stance as the debate of ‘is it art’ rages on…I don’t want to get into that prickly topic now but to a certain extent, yes, I think most things are art.

anned on 27 August 2011 at 2:19 pm wrote
I think the story supplied by Jose is what makes this photograph a document … Without the date, the place, the personal knowledge it would be very much less reliable as a document.

This I disagree with, the anecdote supplies context and a narrative but without it is still, by definition, a document. The question, if we are nit-picking was is it or when does it become a document. We aren’t being asked to question the reliability.

urszula jakubowicz 11 October 2014 at 9:30 am wrote
I believe that every photograph is a document, its importance however can change with time.

This I completely agree with time and hindsight can alter importance, meaning and how it is read by the audience.

Jim D N Smith 29 July 2013 at 7:02 pm wrote
Is the photograph authentic, and does this matter?

A case in point then would be the famous Valley Of The Shadow Of Death made by Roger Fenton in 1855, which is considered to be one of the oldest known photographs of warfare. It may well also be one of the oldest known examples of a staged photograph, with the path with cannonballs to make the photograph have more impact. I guess that one way or another it is a documentary photograph, although the interpretation might be more difficult depending on whether or not the viewer is concerned about the authenticity of the image.

This one I thought could be tricky, but came to the conclusion that although the authenticity might change the meaning and how it is viewed, the photograph would still be a document, even if nothing more than to document: the skill of the manipulation, the intent of the manipulation and the technology available at the time to manipulate the image –  be it digital manipulation or as mentioned in an earlier post the movement of dead American Civil War soldiers by Alexander Gardner.It is a document of the conflict but not an authentic representation.

PDog1917 November 2013 at 5:24 pm wrote
 My first point would be that in order to be a document the photograph needs to be of a ‘real’ event, so regarding this photograph (as Rob stated) “If nothing else it also documents that [Jose’s Grandfather] stood in front of a large wall on a sunny day.” That said, I do not question that a fictional novel is a document.

I think I know where PDog is coming from when he means a “real” event but even a staged event photograph is a real event, because something happened. it becomes a document that someone went to the effort to fabricate or re-enact and record that moment of ‘theatre’ or whatever it was. Ha, and he agrees that a fictional novel is still a document.High 5!

Ed Lerpiniere 21 September 2015 at 3:17 pm wrote
So, if any photographic image made is a document and a record, what about the images we make accidentally, or are of poor quality, badly lit, under or over exposed, heads missing etc.? From time to time we all shoot maybe one or two frames (or in my case many more) that are of feet, sky or nonsense, and many more that have other defects which make them unusable. They, by the dictionary definitions, are both documents and records, but are they useful? If one was to attach comments of pertinent observations about why they are as they are, they could be useful as learning points, without them they wouldn’t even elicit a grimace, they’d just be overlooked by all and sundry and possibly have some wondering glances passed.

Exactly that! They are documents to the fact we did something wrong, either pressed the button by mistake or used the wrong settings, no-one else may give them a second glance but they are still a document to your actions in that time and place.

mattjamesphotos 31 May 2014 at 7:28 pm wrote
I believe context, content, time and audience make a document.Although we may not all understand an image and its contents this does not make it any less of a document than a fully explained image.

A Selfie taken of a teenager posted on facebook or Twitter showing what she is wearing to go out on a Saturday night becomes a document straight away, it is documenting these facts but is of a little interest to anybody outside her circle of friends, this does not stop it becoming a document. With time this will become more of a document to her as it will remind her what she looked like, what she was wearing and stir memories of a particular night or time in her life. With more time this document may even be of interest to others as it is showing how people acted socially at a particular period in time. We do not need a narrative or a back-story of who and why this simply documents a period in time. Like the image of Jose Navarro’s grandfather, this is still a document without the narrative, but like the Selfie this image has much more meaning to him and his family and others when explained.

I agree with everything written here apart from the opening line that content, time and audience are needed to make a document. To be boring and parrot too many people, a  popular definition of what a document is:

‘A piece of written, printed or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record.’


*update* I am now reading, dipping into and out of, Basics Creative Photography: Context and Narrative by Maria Short and have found some useful quotations with regards to this topic where she describes photographs as capturing ‘documented moments.’ (Short, M. 2011, p.9.)

Further responses to the links within the blog are on the next post



Maria Short, 2011. Basics Creative Photography 02: Context and Narrative. 0 Edition. AVA Publishing.


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