Reflections on documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography (p44 of notes)

Before I worked on Part 1 I’m not sure I understood much about documentary photography – as a genre it is barely mentioned in either FiP or EYV. Like many others I suppose my reflexive understanding of “documentary” is as something that is video or film, often prefixed with “hardhitting”, “fly on the wall” or “secret footage”. I’m not sure that I would find it much easier to sum up now;  looking at my notes I would say that documentary photography is an attempt at showing the “facts” of something in a reasonably “objective” manner, perhaps with the aim of disseminating ideas via the distribution of the work. But “facts” and “objective” are words that are hard to pin down themselves. I think the modern interpretation of documentary photography is much broader – a record of a place, a group of people, an activity for example.

The course notes tell me that reportage is “more closely related to a subjective way of storytelling”. It’s story telling from the photographer’s perspective rather than aiming for an objective approach. So it’s more subjective and personal, less objective and analytical. Photojournalism is work that’s made and used as news imagery, to break or illustrate news stories. Like documentary, we like to think that it’s true, but there are numerous opportunities to spin its nature and message, from Photoshop to careful captioning and context. I think the “rules” are different for art photography. It’s about the aesthetics rather than the accuracy. It’s about a message that isn’t necessarily a news story or a social cause (although it could be). I was engaged by Paul Seawright’s view that art photography doesn’t make everything explicit; it releases its meaning gradually and allows the viewer the space to find their own meaning from the work.

I find myself more engaged, on the whole, by art photography and conceptual work.

Making a composite image

This is an exercise that requires us to make a documentary image using Photoshop to incorporate elements of multiple images together.

I’m not that comfortable with Photoshop; despite working my way through various courses I still have something of a silo based understanding and only really know how to do specific tasks that crop up less infrequently than others. Express Your Vision didn’t really encourage the use of Photoshop at all, and my knowledge from the Foundation course is now slightly out of date because of the new versions that have been released. Although I have made composites before there was no “documentary” requirement. Unfortunately the “documentary” aspect of this one tended to get lost in the general panicking about my limited Photoshop skills and as a result I’m not sure if this exercise is meant to build photoshop skills or build understanding of how photographs in a documentary or news setting may not be genuine. Either way, it’s had enough of my time now.

Anyway, I wanted to layer a photograph of an ice cream van into a photograph of a derelict village that is now owned by the army and closed to the public. First off, I couldn’t get the wheels selected. It turns out that the select and mask tooks in Photoshop had changed since the last time I used them. It also turns out that my Wacom graphics tablet doesn’t behave consistently with the tools so I had to sort out an external mouse (I normally use either the Wacom or that little tracker pad thing on the laptop.

I need to do more work around edges, at the moment I don’t really get them. For this work I did the following steps:

  1. Opened the images as Layers in Photoshop (from Lightroom)
  2. Used the Quick select tool to roughly select around the van
  3. Used “Select and Mask” from the top line
  4. Used the + and – tools with the brush to refine the selection
  5. Exported the masking work to a new layer with mask
  6. Used Ctrl T with shift-drag to scale the icecream van.
  7. Saved as a JPG.

Not that happy with the results to be honest, I suppose neither of the donor images were anything special so the result wouldn’t be either. I think I should probably take all the shadows out from under the van and possibly dull the colours slightly. I’m not sure that the perspective is right either, but we’ll never see an ice cream van in Imber to know for sure.

ice cream imber

Writing this up, I was reminded of the composite, layering and pixel manipulation work that I did on the Foundation course. Somehow I found that more engaging though clearly it will never pass as a documentary image, and the hair selection is pretty rough.

blythe zip line composite

Alessandra Sanguinetti

Referenced on p38 of the course notes – “The adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams”, accessed here –

I had come across a couple of these images before, in the BJP, including The Models, but was entranced by the whole series.

I like the near complete absence of adults and the complete absence of boys. The colour palette is beautiful, somewhere between medieval illuminated manuscripts (especially the red top in The Necklace) and Evgenia Arbugaeva’s Tiksi (except slightly warmer). I find that the issue of whether the images are “true” or not largely slips my mind, they have their own story and for me that is enough. I don’t require my reading to be always “true”, nor do I require this in the photographs that I look at. It reminds me a bit of Alice, if Alice were cousins.


Exercise – The Real and the Digital

“Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.”

We like to think of photography as fact, an immutable record of the truth. Yet mistruths, embroideries of truth and ambiguitous creation and use of images has always been hot on the heels of each photographic development. First Fox Talbot negative – 1837, portrait of Hippolyte Bayard as drowned – 1840.

What appears in front of the camera may well have actually happened, but then the work is presented in an untrue context. The camera gives us another way to tell stories, and as we seem to be hard-wired to see photographs as truth, as evidence, it’s too compelling to avoid using cameras to construct “evidence” for our own narratives rather than simply recording the truths in front of us. We’ve also established that everyone constructs their own meaning for an image that they see, so even “truthful” images can be read separately from any intended meaning.

For me, the advent of social media has meant that for some time now I’ve been more open-minded about the “truth” of the images in front of me. I think we’ve all seen the weight-loss/supplement before/after diptychs which either feature two different people or have one person in one picture with perfect posture sucking in their stomach,  and letting it all hang out in the second. It’s not simply a case of filtering for fake pictures, quite often the stories that they accompany are less than entirely objective too (and yes, objectivity being another elusive truth). Incidentally, my writing this was just interrupted by my daughter asking “Who really wrote the Lemony Snicket books and are they still alive?” I took the quick and dirty route to Wikipedia only to have her rebuke me with “But Wikipedia lies, Mum”, leading to a demonstration of online fact cross-checking. She makes an excellent point however, even at nine.

Digital photography is a truly creative media, in the same way as writing and painting. Like these, the “truths”, if any, that a work tells will be a function of the intention of the author, the reading of the audience, and the various layers of context that are ascribed to it. A photographic print or jpg is about as truthful per se as a piece of knitting – I don’t think it’s a correlation that we can make any more, there are too many variables. It’s always been the case for analogue photography too – there are simply too many examples through history to list, and no real hope of the practice stopping any time soon (North Korea for example is developing Photoshop skills along with nuclear weapons).

As authorship of images becomes more slippery (for example use of “appropriated” images in arts photography and “stolen” images in news photography depending on your perspective); I wonder if one of the most essential truths of all is under question – exactly who is the author of a work?

Exercise – Sarah Pickering Public Order


I was curious about this work as I am familiar with the “ghost town” of Imber. So in an odd way the images feel almost familiar to me.  The places depicted by Pickering are somewhat closer to comfortable suburbs compared with the army training ground of Imber – she shows front doors, pavements, kerbs, tiny patches of landscaping, shopping trolleys, road markings, chairs and so on. Imber by contrast, is pretty much stripped of everything. Occasionally you see a sign – “Police station” or “Nato compound” but this will typically be attached with plastic strap fasteners. There are parts of her work that rang true with Imber – especially the image where you see straight through an open door to nothing – just the outdoors. compared with the following taken at Imber:

a1 first pass-8165

The landscaping looks familiar too – miniature mazes of footpaths and access ways between house. I thought her wording “latent violence” (in the video link at the top of this post) seemed very appropriate. It’s not quite aftermath photography because the place is built for conflict, and the conflict happens every single day – booked and scheduled.

In an odd way, the work also reminded me of Disneyland Paris – those facades that line the main “streets” to make you feel as if you’re somewhere else. Disneyland is meant to be about fun though, and this work has a sinister, uncomfortable vibe to it. I think they would both look similar from the back though.

I’m ambivalent about whether the work is an effective use of documentary or whether it is misleading. I think it really depends on the context, on how it’s presented. She’s leaving the images wide open to tell their own stories, to allow people to fill the space with their own narrative which is more about art than documentary. It’s certainly one of those works which is not what it appears to be on first look.



Research point – Paul Seawright Sectarian Murders

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

He gives some of the information, but not all of it. His images show the places where murders occurred, but in a way that makes the places look more normal. We have to reconcile ideas of murder with images of far more innocent looking places such as school playgrounds or historic sites where we might walk our dog or play with our children. Colours are carefully considered and the composition engages us. The viewpoint that he provides us is not one that we would expect from a documentary image; for example from the top of a playground slide or from low down at dog level. We know that he is showing us the location of a real event, but we need to fill in the details, whereas documentary would provide us with more of the facts.

What is the core of his argument and do you agree with him?

The core of his argument is that documentary photography has to get its meaning across in a matter of seconds. I would add that documentary photography also has a particular meaning to get across. Whereas he says that art photography can “give up” its message slowly. It allows the viewer to take their time finding the meaning. He also points out that the meaning will ultimately be decided by the viewer, not by him. I agree with him on both points. I have to keep pulling my A1 back from serving up too much information.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

Yes, because instead of allowing the photographer to determine the meaning of the work we throw it open to the viewers to decide for themselves. Meaning is quite a slippery concept at the best of times.

Research Point – street photographers

This research proved quite interesting. I’m still not convinced that street photography will ever be my genre of choice, but it’s been interesting to see some of the diversity of the work in this field. My research was mainly from Photography The Whole Story (Hacking, 2012), I have also use links saved into my Evernote which are listed within the text.

Helen Levitt was a US photographer under the WPA scheme. Born in 1913 she met Henri Cartier Bresson and is regarded as being similar in approach. She photographed New York children at play, often using a right-angled view finder so she could work unobtrusively. And yet her work is so much more than that description implies. She switched from black and white to colour in the 1960s and her images sing of the moment and its colour. She shows what she sees, and I can’t quite believe I haven’t encountered her work before now. There’s a gentleness in her work that very much appeals to me.

Joel Meyerowitz – a very technically accomplished photographer born in 1938 and still working. I came across his work briefly in the Foundation course, then just now when looking at Aftermath photography and his photographs of Ground Zero. He also switched from black and white to colour, making the delicate Cape Light work in 1978 with its lovely palette of muted coastal tones, sparse composition and a large absence of people.

Paul Graham is a British photographer who like Helen Levitt was new to me, though I had saved an article about him into my Evernote. Inspired by the traditions of the Great American Road Trip, he photographed the Great North Road, taking two years to do it and sleeping in the back of his Mini. As BBC photographer Phil Coomes said, his photographs aren’t designed to amuse or to shock. They simply observe and encourage us to look harder for the meaning. He worked in colour with large/medium format cameras. The work is incredibly considered and I would love to have a look at the book and also see more of his work.

Joel Sternfeld is a US photographer. He photographs the normal, the everyday and the banal.  Like the “new topographic” photographers, he records man’s interaction with the landscape (as opposed to Ansel Adam’s majestic natural unspoiled landscapes). Of the work I looked at, I was most taken by his record of a disused high-level railway line (as part of a community project to secure regeneration), and by his quiet portraits taken at a climate change conference. These latter show how individual delegates responded to the issues under discussion. The photographs are presented with text. I like very much that he is an artist with an agenda, he believes and understands both the power of photography and the limits of photography to help effect change in our world.

Martin Parr is a British photographer, born 1952. His colour work is characterised by its vibrancy, its saturation and the use of ring flash to get even more light. I have mixed feelings about his work, sometimes it feels without compassion but for no good reason. Other times, such as the work in Unseen City, it is full of affection for those depicted. He’s particularly well known for his work with food. His work at the beach shows ice cream on faces, doughnuts, trays of chips and so on his work for Unseen City shows banquets. I think on the whole what he is saying is interesting and relevant. I’m not sure about how he’s saying it thought. Other people whose work reminds me of Martin Parr are Dougie Wallace and Anna Fox’s Resort series.

One photographer that I would like to include here is Hans Eijkelboom. He’s made amazing typographies of the clothes that we all wear, how we all behave. I watched his video The Street & Modern Life at the Strange and Familiar Exhibition and was mesmerised by the sheer volume of carefully made work and the detail with which he had, effectively, choreographed his work. He shows so well how we are all the same, but different, which is a concept I love. We can see how warehouses full of identical clothes translate into streets full of similarly dressed people. Imagine if he had made this work perhaps twenty years ago, forty years ago, 100 years ago? The video can be seen here. I am delighted by the way he uses pairs of people to transition from one theme to the next, almost like passing a relay baton. The film was made over several months at the Bullring in Birmingham.

Consider what difference colour makes to a genre that was predominantly black and white.

For me, it brings the work to life, it allows me to contextualise it within my world and my life. Much black and white photography belongs so definitely to the past and in a way that can present a barrier to understanding it in a modern context. There is sometimes still a tendency to view black and white images more as “art” whereas colour is more careless, more snapshot.

Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism?

I didn’t spot it, no, but it’s definitely gone by the 60s. Though sometimes I think William Egglestone’s work is a bit surreal.

How is irony used to comment on Britishness or American values?

I immediately thought of Robert Frank’s The Americans – Parade, with a spectator obscured by the national flag; Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office, with the recruiter’s feet up on a desk in an empty room; Political rally Chicago, where a musician standing beneath the flag is all but hidden by the bell of his horn. There’s also irony/humour in the sequencing of images, for example “Christ died for our sins” on a dark black car is followed by couples in swimwear canoodling  happily in front of their cars (Public Park – Ann Arbor Michigan). Some of this humour depends upon a tension/conflict between text and other elements of the image whereas some does not require text, we can tell all we need from the elements of the photograph.


Street photography

The task was to take 30 photographs in black and white, 30 in colour and then consider the sets and see which I preferred and why.

I’m not a big fan of black and white photography on a digital camera. I put my camera into black & white picture style so that I could see the images in mono on the preview screen. When I imported them into Lightroom they came through as colour anyway… Anyway, I don’t see in black and white and I don’t particular subscribe to those views that say that b&w makes pictures more timeless/elegant/retro/authentic etc. Neither do I like to use it to “sanitise” modern colours. This is my world and these are my colours. I’m curious about exploring black and white portraits with my Oympus OM-1, and I took black and white Polaroids of Lacock Abbey for my EYV A5. That was a hard decision though, I really loved the honey tones of expired colour film, but there was a problem sourcing it. I took the camera to Lacock Village which is a National Trust owned village. I have to say that as soon as I changed the settings on the camera I had to fight the urge to take olde-world, English village idyll chocolate box images.  Quite distressing. I ended up photographing net curtains. Lacock has two types of windows – those of shops that actively solicit your gaze, and those of residents’ cottages, who presumably already dealing with living in the public gaze are trying to salvage a little privacy. I did feel slightly bad for putting my lens inches from their windows, but I liked the combination of the nets, the outline of what was behind (in some cases) and the reflections of the street opposite and sometimes me too. Interestingly, I think the pictures worked quite well with the Lightroom bleach bypass treatment rather than a b&w conversion, the contrast was more distinct and it was easier to see the different layers of each image. The only images apart from the nets that I was happy with were some of the high-contrast ones in and around the tithe barn, with light streaming through cracks in doors and silhouetted passers by. These are clichéd shots though whereas I hope that the nets are more representative of the work that I do.

Colour made me feel more comfortable. I was able to take advantage of serendipitous moments like the man in a yellow top approaching a flower of the same shade. I could try to capture something of the unique colour palette of the village. I didn’t have to worry about how a colour palette would render in black and white. Really, what would be the point of a black and white ice cream van? Colour seems more relevant.

Following a discussion on the OCA forum I had decided to shoot with a far wider lens than I normally use (10-18mm zoom as opposed to 50mm or 100mm primes). This exercise has shown me that I need to do more work on composing with wider scenes. I also wanted to get more depth of field, after realising that my default is differential focus. I’ve made a couple of changes on my camera and will see how I can improve matters. I also didn’t really get many people in my images. Partly because I’d managed to go on a day with very few visitors and partly because I still feel a lack of inspiration with street photography. I will do another shoot on a busier day.

Which set do I prefer? I’m a bit surprised in that I do quite like the b&w images, especially the ones of the nets. I think for either b&w or colour to work, the composition and framing needs to be spot on, and I’m not really there yet with a wide angle lens. There’s also the observation that my net images are not a pure b&w due to the post processing that I chose. I do like the hints of other colours coming through. It reminds me of the sandstone colours of Lacock and the way the stronger colours stand out against it.

EDIT – following feedback here and elsewhere, I’m considering using the net images towards a reworked Assignment 1, so am removing all but one of them from this blog post. Thank you everyone for the comments.

Project 1 Exercise Citizen Journalism

I’ve chosen a video for this exercise. It shows Dr David Dao being removed from United Flight 3411 at Chicago O’Hare international airport in April 2017. This video, taken by Audra Bridges and shared via Facebook, actually made the story what it was and gave it credibility.

Dr Dao was one of four people with booked and purchased seats on the flight who were asked to “deplane” to make room for United personnel. The 69 year old doctor refused a request to leave the flight as he had work duties to meet. He resisted physical attempts to remove him from the plane, suffering concussion, two lost teeth and a broken nose as security attempted to remove him from the flight, twice. He later settled privately with United Airlines after they admitted full responsibility for the incident. The episode brought home to me, at least, the fact that buying a ticket doesn’t actually guarantee you a seat, and more disturbingly the powers that United Airline security believed it had to seat staff over paying customers and to forcibly remove passengers who had declined a request to leave the plane.

The video is missing the information of what happened before, which according to initial comments from the airline, contained belligerence from Dr Dao. I think the remaining video is largely objective, not least because there is not a lot of room on a plane to film something unobjectively without setting the scene up before. There were also multiple witnesses to the incident. Do planes have security cameras? it would be interesting to see that footage if so. It’s certainly the case that the widespread use of mobile devices means that incidents such as these in public spaces are very likely to be recorded and made public.

I think objectivity is a hard thing to achieve in any kind of photography/image recording. There are always at least two agendas at play – that of the photographer and that of the viewer, and if the photograph has a human subject then there may be a third agenda there too. Even if the agenda is to be as objective as possible, that in itself could end up influencing the result.

While I was researching this I was also reminded of the episode with Jeremy Corbyn who was videoed by a Labour film-maker sitting on the floor on a Virgin train because there were no available seats. Virgin responded very strongly with cctv showing Mr Corbyn and his party walking past empty seats in the reserved carriage, before sitting on the floor between carriages and being filmed. Is either set of video objective? Probably not, but my gut feeling is that the cctv is more objective (despite my own experience that it’s hard to find a pair of unreserved seats on the routes that I use).