Research Point – Documentary as Art

For this research point we are asked to look at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders which were made in 1988.

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

Seawright’s work revolves around visiting sites around Belfast where sectarian murders took place in the 1970’s. The text under each photograph stems from actual newspaper captions about each attack where innocent people lost their lives because of their religious persuasion. However, any mention of religion was removed from the texts. I don’t believe this body of work is something that would fall under the ‘late photography’ category as Seawright photographed these locations about fifteen years after the incidents took place. David Campany describes late photography as ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event.’ In this case ‘the trace of the trace of the event’ has long since vanished.

This body of work makes me feel very uneasy.  The photographs – all landscapes – seem to be taken in locations that are fairly remote. Only two photographs feature some houses, but they are in the far distance and similarly only two feature people. The lighting ranges from moody and heavily overcast to very bright and saturated, back to overcast and dark and ending with bright colours again. This pacing of the different lighting conditions helps to create an ambiguity that runs central to this body of work. It also creates a sense of expectancy.

The photographer has taken quite a subjective point of view with this body of work as it almost feels as if he is lurking in each photograph. In the first one it feels as if he is hiding behind something close to the caravan. In the second he is down flat in the grass; in the third he is crouching on the roundabout watching the man and boy at the swings; in the fourth he is observing someone from among the bushes; in the fifth he has crept up to the dump at nightfall and in the final image he is at the top of the slide. The viewer is thus also drawn into the frame in a similar fashion.

All the subjects in the photographs are just off centre which reinforces the idea of ‘something is not right’. When we look at the text, devoid of any religious references, we conclude that these are various crime scenes. Without knowing the context, they could be photographs and stories of almost any place in the world, after all crime is something that is understood universally. By stripping the religious context from the captions and depoliticizing the images, I think Seawright has created more of an immediacy with this body of work. Not too many non-British people can relate to the religious war that happened in Northern Ireland. It was something terrible that “happened across the pond” or “in another country”. In a way it is quite similar to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. We see it on TV, acknowledge the atrocities and give thanks that we are not in that situation.  We have become desensitized by all the images of dead bodies that we see on the news or in movies. By removing the context from the captions, Seawright has found a way to engage the viewer more directly. He has provided the space where the viewer can imagine the violence taking place without witnessing the horror of the murdering of innocent people, thereby taking more of a forensic approach.

Unlike the journalistic documentary photograph that one finds in a newspaper or magazine that require a minimal response from the viewer, Seawright’s work requires a bit more work. Instead of presenting the viewer with a photograph of a dead body (documentary style) which is read very quickly, he presents the viewer with scenes where dead bodies once were. The viewer then has to “work the scene” to uncover the various layers of meaning.

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

The core argument with his work lies in the fact that he tries to create work that has some ambiguity, but not too much otherwise the work would be meaningless. On the other side of the coin the work should not be too explicit either because then it borders on being journalistic. Good photographic art gives up its meaning slowly and engages and draws the viewer in, encouraging the viewer to create his/her own meaning to the work.

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

Fundamentally I don’t believe the meaning does change. As the documentary photograph is meant to be read and understood quickly, its interpretation must be grasped almost instantaneously and be more explicit. The art documentary photograph might contain the same meaning, but it will be layered differently, thereby allowing for a variety of deductions or connotations to be drawn by the viewer, going in a more round about way to come to the same meaning. The art documentary photograph will probably generate more questions.

I came across a lecture by Paul Seawright on fellow student, Steve Middlehurst’s blog (thanks Steve) in which Seawright explains in more detail aspects of his work, reading images and constructing meaning in images.

References

Campany, David, (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] Available from: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 17 April, 2015]

Catalyst: Paul Seawright (online). Imperial War Museums. 1 min 59 secs. Available from: https://vimeo.com/76940827 (Accessed 8 June, 2015)

Seawright, Paul (2010). Voice Our Concern. Dir. Joe Lee. Irish Museum of Modern Art and Amnesty International Ireland. 32 mins 40 secs. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHT0gtbrV4s (Accessed 8 June 2015).

Bibliography

Bull, Stephen (2010). Photography. Oxon: Routledge

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