The research point in the Course materials suggested looking at Paul Seawright’s work Sectarian Murder to answer a number of questions:-
How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?
I think that reverting to first principles about what documentary photography is, would be a good starting point. The course materials succinctly maintain that documentary has a ‘distanced style, often described as cold’.
In Sectarian Murder Seawright revisited the sites of sectarian attacks during the 1970’s close to where he grew up in Belfast. The texts are from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of innocent civilians, killed for their perceived religion.
Looking at a number of the images and accompanying text from the series, they can definitely align with this ‘cold’ description: The captions, drafted by Seawright from actual newspaper reports, are almost brutal or clinical in their lack of emotion, using hard facts with little or no elaboration. The subtlety is all in the images.
However, to apply the adjective ‘distanced’ to the set would be quite untrue. Each image seems to have been taken from a specific individual’s viewpoint and there is a deliberateness to this choice, lending the viewer to being acutely aware of the artist’s involvement and in turn, him clearly wanting to convey his own personal message.
Using the photograph above as an example, Seawright did not simply photograph the location in a straight documentary style, but he also wanted to give us a sense of perspective from a human viewpoint. He could quite easily have taken a shot of the location standing on the grass. Instead, he captured the location from the perspective of a child looking over the sea, waiting to head down the slide. He wanted us to truly understand the innocuous nature of the site – a child’s play area perched on a cliff top, as a stark contrast to what he had included in the text – “Tuesday 3 October 1973 – ‘Late last night a 28 year old man disappeared from a pub. It wasn’t until this morning that the body was found abandoned in a quiet park on the coast”.
Susan Sontag in her book of essays ‘On Photography’ explained:-
‘When looking at a painting we are very aware of the artist. This is not the case when looking at photographs, and in the case of ordinary and utilitarian photographs, the photographer is almost irrelevant. Photojournalism is successful because the work of good photojournalists is so similar, they are powerful images because they copy the world and do not express ‘…an individual artist’s consciousness’. In the vast majority of photographs this consciousness ‘…interferes with the primary demand of the photograph: that it record, diagnose, inform’.
Using Sontag’s quite forthright language, Seawright has obviously let his ‘consciousness interfere with the primary demand of the photograph to inform’. Applylng Sontag’s quite rigid rules therefore undeniably moves this series into the genre of ‘art’ as opposed to ‘documentary’.
The British Photography website stresses the importance of viewpoints in their assessment of the series of images and explained that Seawright had researched the events and in some, if not all of the images ‘… re-enacted the route taken from the place from which a victim was snatched to the eventual spot of the murder or dumping of the body.’ The commentary goes on to explain ‘Such reconstructions of reality built up tensions within the artist, as well as eliciting the lingering presence of gross transgressive acts from the location..’
I would contradict their assertion that ‘Each scene was photographed in colour from the victim’s viewpoint – close to the ground.’ Not only were some of the images taken at normal shoulder height (see bottom left), some appeared to be taken from the point of view of the gunmen. The image to the bottom right clearly mimics the viewpoint of the murderers as they would have held the victim children in their weapon sights outside of the chip shop, the sugar-coated colours of the car interior a shocking contrast to the text describing the bloody act, accompanying the image: ‘Sunday 3 February 1973. Gunmen using a stolen car, shot down 5 young boys who were standing outside the Glen chip shop on the Old Park Road. A sustained burst of gunfire wounded four of the youths and killed the fifth.’
The rather obvious statement to make about the images also, is that they clearly move away from the genre of ‘documentary’ in that they don’t actually depict anything from the actual event bar the scene of the crime, and in many cases not even that, the locations were where the bodies were finally dumped. This can render the series almost as ‘late photography’, the central theme of ‘Conflict, Time, Photography’ exhibition which I visited at the Tate Modern in December 2014:
Specifically, Seawright’s series reminded me very much of Chloe Dewe-Mathew’s Shot at Dawn set of photographs from the exhibition, where she also used the location of the event as the central subject, being the sites where WW1 soldiers were executed at dawn for cowardice or desertion. Whilst Dewe-Mathews was fastidious in ensuring that her image was taken at precisely the same time of day that the soldiers’ were executed, so Seawright seemed equally as methodical to ensure that he researched the route that the murdered person took hours before and after their death before their body was taken to its final location before it was discovered.
Chloe Dewe-Mathews ‘Shot at Dawn’ Image -Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy, Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil, Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani, Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed …
Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: http://vimeo.com/76940827 [accessed 24/02/14] What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
In the interview, Seawright explains how he grapples with the fine balance between an image hinting at it’s meaning or message, or being too blatant or ‘journalistic’. The central core of his argument seems to be that rather than stamp his message on a viewer, he wants his art to be interpreted in exactly the way we want to decipher it, and however we do that, it should never be an instantaneous process. Rather like high end cooking he seems to imply that art needs to be digested slowly in order to be enjoyed. He talks of ‘giving up meaning’ as a necessarily slow process in order to hold attention and to avoid the instant view then ’15 second later’ page turn. He definitely wants us to work at understanding the images and by that in turn for the viewers, makes them all the more satisfying to look at.
If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?
Eric Newton, in his article ‘Four reasons why great Photojournalism is Art’ uses Oxford Dictionary definitions to argue his point:-
Art is….. “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” Artworks come “typically in a visual form … to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
He then asserts… ‘That’s great journalism’. (2014)
I agree with Newton. I think that certain documentary images are so compelling that you can look at them for a long time. And these art/documentary images don’t need to be holding our gaze as objects for morbid curiosity, such as could be argued they might, for brutal images of war or terrorism. (I think the world is long past being shocked by violent or bloody scenes.) I think that a documentary style image becomes art when it triggers any one of a wide range of emotions, be it humour, awe, shock, despair. All these go beyond the point of ‘informing’ in a documentary sense, and it is quite simply because photographs have the power to evoke these reactions (which will differ from viewer to viewer), that this changes their meaning. As Seawright points out also, an artwork is personal to a viewer so the meanings become much more complex and can be dictated by a whole range of factors, including personal experience, family background etc.
Certainly where a photograph is displayed has an impact on its meaning and connotation and how we react to it. Sarah J Coleman wrote an article having visited the Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea to see photographs by Tim Hetherington, the war photographer killed in Libya in 2011. Viewing the image below, she writes:-
‘I admire Hetherington’s work, but even so it a bit felt jarring to see his images of Liberian child soldiers and decrepit hospitals commodified into beautiful 4′ x 4′ art prints. The contrast between the dirty-colorful, poverty-stricken Liberian landscape and the perfect white walls of the gallery was ironic to say the least.’ (2012)
My focus is usually always on the aesthetics of the image, however or wherever it is presented, however I can appreciate that this can have an effect on how we ‘read’ a photograph and therefore may skew its meaning.
At the moment this topic feels enormous and I feel I’m just skimming the surface. It would be good to revisit the questions later on in the course.
British Photography / The Hyman Collection. Paul Seawright : Sectarian Murder (1988). At http://www.britishphotography.org/artists/17199/ei/1739/paul-seawright-paul-seawright-sectarian-murder-1988. Accessed at 14 September 2016
Newton, E. (2014) Four Reasons why Great Photojournalism is Art. At http://www.knightfoundation.org/articles/four-reasons-why-great-photojournalism-art Accessed at 16 September 2016
Coleman, S (2012). Documentary Photography at the New York Photo Festival. At https://theliteratelens.com/2012/05/22/is-it-art-documentary-photography-at-the-new-york-photo-festival/ Accessed at 15 September 2016
Basic Critical Theory for Photographers : Susan Sontag, On Photograrphy