Legacy documentary for social change – Elizabeth McCausland

This section opens with a quote from Martha Rosler that states:

Documentary testifies … to the bravery or the manipulativeness…of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger…human decay…and saved us the trouble. Or, who, like astronauts, entertained us by showing us the places we hope to never go.

(Martha Rosler in Botlon, 1992, p308)

I am going to have to go back to this chapter and re-read the paragraph where is this quote is taken from, as Rosler was talking about the direction and reasons behind Documentary photography at that moment in history. I am not sure that her comments were directed solely at B&W images, but putting that aside, yes, the ‘exposé’ – a report in the media that reveals something discreditable, or unmasks something, usually disreputable – has long been a theme of choice amongst documentary photographers. There as a strongly held conviction that photography can be used as a tool to ‘elicit positive action for social change’ and still many people, photographers and audience alike also strongly believe that the B&W image holds more gravitas and veracity. Having checked back I wasn’t imagining it…Rosler wasn’t aiming her comments at B&W documentary but at the genre as a whole, however the photographers she cites as the ‘most currently luminous’ at that time were all shooting in B&W i.e. W.Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, Diane Arbus, Danny Lyon…etc, etc.

Exercise – to read the 1939 article on documentary photography by Elizabeth McCausland, list the main points and consider why this article is relevant to this part of the course.

  • Documentary photography is not a passing phase but a natural development from the previous style of photography and a reaction to the social and political circumstances of the era.
  • There was a realisation that life itself was exciting and important especially where depicted as realistic and truthful.
  • Despite the old adage ‘the camera never lies’ we must except that it can and does – also the audience is looking more outwardly towards the whole world, not just inwardly.
  • Photographers should remember that it is the subject that is important not them, they should look for the best way to portray the issues/theme, revealing the truth and illustrating the intended message clearly.
  • The channels that existed for other media was the same for photography, and subject to the same censorship, yet the opportunities for publishing ‘honest photographs… in magazines or newspapers are not many.’
  • The involvement of the government promoted the work of the FSA – the work was considered ‘straight forward’ and opened up more opportunities for those who followed.
  • The question of ‘is photography art?’ was being asked then, just as it is now, and ‘progressive photographers’ didn’t care and did not consider it important. Whatever the stance, it was then considered ‘ bound to realism.’
  • The ‘Arts’ change as society changes, as does photography. Due to the economic climate of the time, just after the Great Depression and before WWII, there was a lot of social deprivation (all captured in B&W). Images of the 1930’s portrayed stark, harsh realities rather than the affluent, extravagant, romantic era of the 20’s.
  • Images had to have a meaning, a message and be able to communicate. The more realistic, grittier, detailed and less metaphorical/abstract the better.
  • There should be no ‘exhibitionism or opportunism  or exploitation.’ The purpose of the photographer should be ‘clear…[the] mood simple and modest.’ Imprinting your own personality within the body of work will take away from original aims and message, which is to inform us of the wider world and its atrocities, with the utmost objectivity.

So why read this article now? Why is it relevant to the course? Well, for a start many of McCausland’s points are still as pertinent and relevant to photography today. The core points still hold true although time has moved on and moved the goal posts slightly.

Documentary photography is still on the rise and heavily influenced by the socio-economic and political climate of the day; we look towards global issues as well as those on our doorstep.The prime example of the influence of social media and the power of photography at present would be the campaign at Standing Rock. Many online magazines, blogs and news outlets have been carrying emotive images of the Native American Indians and their supporters, standing up to the oil companies. I dare say at some stage in the near future there will be phot0-books and longer documentary articles recounting the story from beginning to end.

There are many more outlets for photographers now than previously but conversely there are more photographers and a lack of permanent posts attached to publications thus, in some respects, finding an outlet for images can be just as difficult.

The photography/art debate still rages but more and more work is appearing in galleries and attracting larger audiences. Many people don’t really care about the labels as long as the work is good and they can understand it.

Art/photography as art/documentary is changing and embracing new technologies such as digital manipulation – as society is changing so is photography – bringing more debate into whether manipulation or how much manipulation should be allowed. As per my last post the rules are being slightly relaxed within some competitions and publications.

Having read some articles and essays about the history of Documentary as a genre it is quite understandable as to why the B&W image was considered to be the only way to present a serious argument, but I think that the images we have been seeing from Standing Rock, or those that Greenpeace or Daniel Beltrá publish, illustrate that by no means are colour images not potent, emotive or truthful.

Whilst I agree that realism can be gritty and allow for a message to be put across I also think that conceptual and manipulated images can be as equally formidable and perceptive, such as these images from Katie Crawford, and others, showing mental health issues. I think these also underscore how sometimes subjectivity can also help convey important messages.


(No Date) Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/photonotes.pdf (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Rosler, M. (1992) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’, The Contest of Meaning, , p. p 303.


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