Documentary, identity and place – research point – Reflexivity and authorship

After being introduced to Simon Roberts, and how he examined the interaction of people, identity and place, we are to familiarise ourselves with other photographers who also explored the theme. It may help to bear in mind a reference within the coursework to A Phenomenology of Landscape (1997), in which Christopher Tilley argues that the meaning of place is grounded in an existential or lived consciousness of it (p.15).

Following on from the introduction of surrealism and art within the documentary genre we are given information with regards to Alex Webb, whose photographs are said to ‘transcend a pure depiction of place…’ His images are said to not only record the place but also his impressions of place, especially his images of Istanbul. This is how authorship is defined: ‘a personal, subjective photographic practice, laden with intention…. The admission of the photographer’s subjective view is known as reflexivity and originates in the social sciences – applied primarily within the context of ethnographic research.’

Research point

Do some independent research into the work of some or all of the photographers discussed in this project. Compare and contrast the strategies that these photographers adopt in conveying a sense of local identity. Do you think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting? Can you find any evidence for the view that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’?

Firstly I think I need to clarify in my own mind the meaning of reflexivity, authorship and a sense of place, and how this impacts upon documentary photography. I believe that it cannot be neutral, as I think I already touched upon in much earlier posts. I believe not only is documentary photography strongly influenced by both the subconscious and  the conscious thought of the photographer, but also the authorial intent can be affected by this.

As stated by Clarke: ‘…in many contexts the notion of a literal and objective record of ‘history’ is a limited illusion. It ignores the entire cultural and social background against which the image was taken, just as it renders the photographer a neutral, passive, and invisible recorder of the scene.’  (1997, p.146)


Sense of Place – Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or animals. Places said to have a strong ‘sense of place’ have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors.

Reflexivity – (Of a method or theory in the social sciences) taking account of itself or of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.

Authorship – the state or fact of being the writer of a book, article, or document or the creator of a work of art – a uniformity of style.

These terms are very pertinent to this particular course with the accompanying notes stating:

By the end of this course we’ll expect you to have developed a ‘reflexive’ practice which shows awareness of your own perception of the scenes and situations that you photograph. […]  it’s an acknowledgement that your own cultural and socio-economic background, your expectations and preconceptions about the subjects and topics that you photograph, affect the outcome of your photographic practice.

So onward and upwards to look at yet more new photographers and see where their journeys takes mine…

Alex Webb 

The coursework directs us specifically to Webb’s project in Istanbul. However, I feel that his personal vision and unique documentary style/narrative voice is clear in other bodies of work. Most lean towards the surreal: shadows, reflections, silhouettes, motion blur, colour, contrast, playing with perspective and juxtaposition of elements. Whilst the images themselves may not directly show where the photographs were taken, they do capture a sense of the place and how he has responded to it on an emotional level. He projects his own ideas and feelings and therefore authorship onto the projects. Geoff Dyer (The Suffering of Light, 2012) stated:

Wherever he goes, Webb always ends up in a Bermuda shaped triangle where the distinctions between photojournalism, documentary and art blur and disappear.

Webb’s images are compositionally complex as he uses frames within frames; utilising doors, windows archways and shadows to create a multi-levelled image. I found some of the comments on this forum very interesting as some complained he was biased, only showed the poorer urban areas and that Istanbul wasn’t properly represented. One commentator wrote:

It is totally deceptive and I am sorry Alex Webb but you are reflecting, almost dictating an idea on people’s minds that Istanbul is a very poor third-world city, let alone the picture you are creating about Turkey altogether.

Which I found to be a justifiable criticism, yet also ironic as it confirmed Webb’s intent. As Well points out: ‘Facts now matter less than appearances. The old documentary project is fractured into work that explores the world in terms of particular subjectivities, identities and pleasures.” (2009, p 103)

Jens Olof Lasthein

Jens Olof Lasthein is a Swedish photographer whose bodies of work mainly cover the former Yugoslavia and areas across Europe, which border what used to be the old Iron Curtain.

Amongst his published books are:

Moments in Between (1994-1999) which portrays life before and after the wars in the former Yugoslavia and according to Lasthein is: an attempt to understand life in the shadow of war.


White Sea, Black Sea (2001-2007) which documents a journey along the eastern border of the European Union from Arkhangelsk in the north to Odessa in the south, exploring the  socio-political transformations in Eastern Europe and Asia. The coursework directs us to his body of work which examines the Republic of Abkhazia, in the Southern Caucasus, the odd name Caucasus catching his attention when he was a boy. He stated:

Basically the idea is to take the viewer on a visual journey through the borderland between European East and West. Not claiming any kind of truth, the conditions are decided by myself alone in relation to my own internal boundaries: What can it be like being European? An attempt to open up some borders – my own, and maybe even others…

The Caucasus served as a complex borderland troubled by several unresolved conflicts, making it an important next step for my work.

Due to this statement we perceive another photographer who is projecting his own ideas and feelings, therefore reflexivity and authorship, onto his projects. This is further underlined by his comment: ‘my selections have to encompass an emotion which I see as true and consistent with my impressions.’

Wells commented: ‘Documentary is seen as part of the process of examination described by Foucault as ‘a procedure of objectification and subjection’, in which ordinary lives are turned into accounts.” (2009, p. 107)

Apparently, Lasthein uses a panoramic camera which gives his photographs a unique ‘Cinemascope appearance,’ influenced by directors Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa. This use of extreme wide-angle is said to  provide ‘possibilities of complexity, allowing more than one story to be included in the picture…. [create] conditions for the viewer to believe in the picture….I can stand in the middle of a situation and still get everything into the frame.’

Another book, Meanwhile Across the Mountain, was due to be published January 2017, the current release date in April 2017.

…the work of sequencing the photographs…has helped me concentrate on painting a bigger picture with as many details as possible. It’s helped me think about how to drag the viewer into this kaleidoscopic world of different languages, cultures, landscapes and religions—once a coherent southern Soviet region, now broken into pieces after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I have been focusing on everyday life, which is influenced both by animosities and suspicions across the borders, but also by what is shared—and unifying—about the region’s history. For an outsider, this all presents a paradox; for the locals, this is just the way it is.

Lasthein believes his images do follow the tradition of documentary photography:

…exploiting the surrounding world to investigate and interpret some thoughts or feelings which puzzle me. ..I am dependent on getting impressions from the outside to keep things moving inside. With luck, this process opens up the flow of an expression that mirrors the clash between reality and my imagination.

Marco van Duyvendijk 

On looking at his online portfolio all his project seem to be focused upon individual countries,for example Romania, China and South Korea, but the coursework directs us, in particular, to his body of work about Mongolia.

I found his work to be fairly diverse: a mix of traditionally posed portraits, candid shots, environmental landscapes and several abstract images. He integrates and uses colour in several ways; the images either have the same tonal palette or are used as a contrast.

A review on foto8 stated:

From the outset, it is clear that this compendium of images, rural and urban, industrial and pastoral, is intended as a snapshot of a culture in transition.

….. it is the conflicting legacies of communism and Buddhism, and the latter-day encroachment of Western materialism, that dominate: images of crumbling Soviet-era tenements and abandoned factories are interspersed with portraits of novice monks in scarlet and orange robes and surly looking teenage girls with pierced lips and tattooed navels.

Similarly to Lasthein, Duyvendijk captured a nation’s shifting identity. The diversity in his images reveal that Mongolia is indeed a changing place and means many different things to many different people depending upon their age and traditional values.

Unlike those who were on personal journeys, Duyvendijk was commissioned to complete this project.

Philip Cheung

Philip Cheung is a photographer based in Los Angeles and Toronto. His work has been published internationally, including National Geographic, TIME, Wallpaper and GQ. His photography in the West Bank was taken due to ‘his desire to challenge the stereotypical violent imagery’ of the place, and to focus instead on people’s daily lives.

I found trying to research this body of work quite challenging. Despite an interview being mentioned in the coursework, I couldn’t find anything online to back up his statement that he wanted to ‘understand the place, the complexities of this conflict.’ (BJP August 2011, p21).

The body of work itself may be larger but I could only find the above 8 thumbnails on his webpage. Like Lasthein and Duyvendijk he captured the split personality of this place, although I am not certain the images reveal any further understanding of the people, place or the conflict, for the audience as some of the meanings of the individual shots are possibly a little obscure without captions. Again the images are diverse: internal shots, external shots, images of action and movement juxtaposed against others that are calm and still.

In this way he does reveal the sense of place, the different ethnicities, the apparent tourists, the built up areas as opposed to the wide open spaces. The feeling of normality is shown by the girls enjoying a fun fair ride and the vendor with wedding dresses on display. Is the person in a gas mask representative of a personal daily experience? Does this conversely show the conflict despite Cheung’s desire to step away from it?

A fairly apt quote would be ‘Documentary pictures tend to suggest that is there is a reality – ‘look at this!’ – and it is in this sense that we must argue that: documentary photographs construct representations of reality, according to someone’s view, their desire to see.’ (Bate, 2009 p. 61) as in this body of work the images are Cheung’s response to the situation, what perspectives of the situation/environment he sees and wants his audience to see.

David Goldblatt 

David Goldblatt doesn’t seem to have his own website, rather an internet search for ‘his’ web site search directs you to the Goodman Gallery and a selection of images from Intersections with captions underneath.

The initial body of work appears to capture many different characters in their respective environments, be that shopping, work; be they black or white, rich or poor.

Huge unashamedly copied text from a book review for Regarding Intersections

Between 1999 and 2011 David Goldblatt did work that he had not previously attempted: personal photography in colour.

Initially Goldblatt photographed in his immediate environment Johannesburg, before deciding to examine South Africa by taking photographs within no more than a radius of 500 meters of each of the 122 points of intersection of a whole degree of latitude and a whole degree of longitude within its borders…

After abandoning the initial project he retained the idea of intersections. From time to time, over a period of nine years, he travelled the country in search of intersections—intersections of ideas, values, histories, conflicts, congruencies, fears, joys and aspirations—and the land in which and often because of which these happened.

This book brings together a selection of Goldblatt’s colour photography in South Africa from 2002 to 2011. An earlier version, Intersections, was published by Prestel in 2005, and the catalogue Intersections Intersected, consisting of paired black and white and color photographs, was published by Serralves Museum, Porto, in 2008.

A selective view of inside the book is also on the web page.

Further development on his initial ideas can be seen here.

David Goldblatt has documented the complexities and contradictions of South African society. His photographs capture the social and moral value systems that governed the tumultuous history of his country’s segregationist policies and continue to influence its changing political landscape.

…The son of Jewish Lithuanian parents … Goldblatt was forced into a peculiar situation, being at once a white man in a racially segregated society and a member of a religious minority with a sense of otherness. He used the camera to capture the true face of apartheid as his way of coping with horrifying realities and making his voice heard… he reveals a much more complex portrait, including the intricacies and banalities of daily life in all aspects of society. Whether showing the plight of black communities, the culture of the Afrikaner nationalists, the comfort of white suburbanites, or the architectural landscape, Goldblatt’s photographs are an intimate portrayal of a culture plagued by injustice.

…we can see a universal sense of people’s aspirations, making do with their abnormal situation in as normal a way as possible… Goldblatt points out a connection between people…and the environment, and how the environment reflects the ideologies that built it… Goldblatt is very much a part of the culture that he is analyzing… Goldblatt’s interest lies in the routine existence of a particular time in history.

…For his “Intersections Intersected” series, Goldblatt looks at the relationship between the past and present by pairing his older black-and-white images with his more recent color work…there is a possibility for hope, recognition of how much has changed politically in the time between the two images, and a potential optimism for the future. Goldblatt’s work is a dynamic and multilayered view of life in South Africa, and he continues to reveal that society’s progress and incongruities.
—Joseph Gergel, Curatorial Fellow

Goldblatt photographed an area and culture that he knew intimately. Originally he photographed contrasting characters and places to reveal the differing ‘personality’ of the geographical space and subsequently took the idea further by juxtaposing older images against his more contemporary work.

Mikhael Subotzky

For this photographer we are asked to investigate his body of work Beaufort West described by Magnum as containing: Vivid characters and poignant social landscapes are the subject of Mikhael Subotzky’s first photo-book confronting central issues of contemporary South African society . From his website:

Subotzky was born in 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa, and is currently based in Johannesburg. Mikhael Subotzky’s film, video and photographic works are concerned with the structures of narrative and representation, as well as the relationship between social storytelling and the formal contingencies of image making.

…[his] first body of photographic work, Die Vier Hoeke (The Four Corners), was an in-depth study of the South African penal system. Umjiegwana (The Outside) and Beaufort West extended this investigation to the relationship between everyday life in post-apartheid South Africa and the historical, spatial, and institutional structures of control.

More images from this series can be found here.

Subotsky is reported to have commented: ‘I still very much see my work as being about myself , and my place. It is photographs of my personal experience of my surroundings.’
As Clarke states: ‘Other documentary photographers establish quite different terms of reference, although even here we can find the camera dominated by a personal philosophy.’ (1997, p.153) however, Subotsky quite clearly states his reflexivity and therefore authorship of his work.


So…after all that research let’s go back to the task at hand which was to: Compare and contrast the strategies that these photographers adopt in conveying a sense of local identity.

When reviewing the bodies of work they all have a totally different feel and aesthetic approach. Although they all use colour they do so differently; Webb uses vivid and vibrant colours to emphasise the surreal nature of his images and capture a feel of place, whereas Lasthein does not appear to use colours other than naturally, a statement of ‘that’s what’s there I’m not using it to make a point.’ Goldblatt the same, apart from the further development of his projects, where he juxtaposes B&W against colour to portray historical change.

All the photographers use a combination of portrait and environmental portraits/landscape shots to promote a sense of place. Some used contrasting images, traditional against modern whereas Lasthein uses as panoramic view to try to layer his content, capturing more of just what is in front of him. As several have photographed their home towns, or their own cultural background, it is fair to say that their approaches would be different (local knowledge etc) and their own emotions would have been projected onto how they set about capturing the work. ‘Outsiders’ may have preconceived ideas which they would either actively try to reinforce or dispel, as with Philip Cheung. Do I  think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting? As other students and photographers have commented, including Alex Webb: it’s not ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ depending on insider or outsider status – it’s merely different. There will be bias for both angles, thinking you know what a place and its population are about from living there or assuming you know about it due to earlier reports/documentation.

Can the same geographical space be different at the same time? Yes, is my initial answer. Due to perspectives, attitudes and upbringing a Church, for example, is a holy place of worship for one person, and a place of hypocrisy and indoctrination for another. Or a field where a farmer toils all day is a recreational walk for another person. Do any of the photographers examined underscore this idea? With the surrealism employed, Webb uses reflections and frames very well to create different views of a city in the same image. Lasthein’s panoramas reveal different activities within the same spot. Other projects are on a much larger scale, rather than local, and the idea of geographical ‘space’ is spread over a wider area, therefore by using opposing images others achieve the same effect.

Is there a sense of identity? Again I think, yes, it may be that you feel a sense of the people and environment in one given place or an overview of a country but in their respective approaches all of these practitioners have revealed their own subjective interpretation of a given area.  That identity may be cohesive and homogeneous or it may be fragmented and changing, but you need to examine the work closely to discover which.


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge.


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