New Forums for Documentary

Exercise Cruel + Tender

The first major exhibition at the Tate dedicated exclusively to photography, giving a ‘stamp of approval’ to documentary photography as a ‘legitimate medium’ with a rightful place within a gallery.

Read the brochure and watch the videos below

Interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Fazel Sheikh

The brochure is a teachers and leaders kit with information re group visits, but it is very good at reminding us of documentary photography basics with historical and critical context, including photography’s impact on modern art. The suggested book list is one that could come in very handy.

It also serves to remind us how photography gained more attention through the wide use of exhibitions and mentions William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus who exhibited together.

The teaching kit brochure and exhibition covered several themes:

  • Portraiture and the representation of people through photography
  • The difficulty in sustaining/producing documentary truth
  • The role of the audience, what baggage do we bring?
  • The use of a series of photographs and how they are read

A quote I found relevant to many of the topics already discussed in the earlier coursework was from Charles Caffin (1901):

“There are two distinct roads in photography – the utilitarian and the aesthetic: the goal of the one being a record of facts, and the other an expression of beauty.”

The text goes on to inform us:

A third, more conceptual approach was introduced by the avant-garde of the early twentieth century (for example ManRay with his invented rayograms, Moholy Nagy, Hannah Hoch with her photo montage work, again not represented in this show). These artists tried to disrupt ideas of representing figurative ‘reality’.

It would appear that the exhibition title comes from a description of Walker Evans’ work, by Lincoln Kirstein in 1933, as possessing a ‘tender cruelty’. Apparently he was ‘referring to the way Evans’ images were spare and factual, and yet also suggested Evans’ strong interest, even passion for his subject matter.’

The exhibition was very successful in bringing photography to the fore and legitimising the genre of Documentary once more as an important genre of visual communication.

Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra is a photographer I have been aware of for some time.

Dijkstra concentrates on single portraits, and usually works in series, looking at groups such as adolescents, clubbers, and soldiers. Her subjects are shown standing, facing the camera, against a minimal background. The raw immediacy of these images captures something of the contradictions inherent in this common and yet most singular of human experiences. The women appear at once vulnerable and invincible, traumatised and self-composed. Dijkstra draws a parallel between the two groups of photographs. Both bullfighters and mothers are pictured after an exhausting and potentially life-threatening experience, relating to society’s deepest-held ideas of masculinity and femininity.

Here she explains how both sets of images came about and her decision of why they were displayed together, and her ‘lack of control’ at the moment of capturing the images, The difference between male/female protectors/fighters. Why she isolates her subjects and not wanting to reveal too much detail. The reactions of others to how she was portraying men as shaken and not macho heroes, and the women looking unsettled and in a ‘just given birth’ state – links a bit to my essay!

There were some similarities in the shots, for example the aesthetics and images were of people in the aftermath of scary, life-threatening situations.

All reminders of the importance of photographing thing that make you feel emotion, are slightly different from the norm and having a distinctive photographic style.

Fazal Sheikh

Is a new photographer to me.

Sheikh’s interest in photographing refugee communities began after he visited Kenya in the early 1990s and documented the refugee camps near the border with Somalia. He treats his subjects as individuals, identifying them by name, and writing texts that explain the political circumstances that forced them to leave their home. Before taking photographs, he spends weeks living in the camps, giving his work a genuine depth and engagement.

His video interview was interesting to me as he also highlighted some of the ethical questions raised previously with regard to how Western media portray certain countries or situations. He described being angered at the way Somali refugees were being portrayed in America. His personal, firsthand knowledge of the areas being covered gave him the insight that there was more of a story to be told than what was being represented in the press.

He also revealed the aspect of following up on a project several years later can produce another body of work that is equally as valid. Similar in some respects to the project by Dana Lixenberg of Imperial Courts, although her project was over 22 years not a period of 8!

Sheikh had a different approach as well, he used a Polaroid camera and had discussions with the people on who should be photographed and how.  I liked how he felt that text was important as well as the imagery and that in certain circumstances the images cannot tell the whole story.


Cruel + Tender [accessed 28/09/2017]

Rineke Dijkstra [accessed 28/09/2017]

Fazal Sheikh [accessed 28/09/2017]


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