Category Archives: 01 Eyewitnesses?

Martha Rosler: In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

In looking at documentary and social reform the course notes urge us to look at Martha Rosler’s essay ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ which was written in the 80’s.

I found this essay quite difficult to get into. Rosler has a tendency to jump around a bit and I found her sentences padded with extraneous material that ran off topic quite frequently.

Martha Rosler is an artist, photography, videographer from Brooklyn, New York and her work focuses on the built environment, public life, architecture and issues from everyday life with special focus on how these affect women.

In a panel discussion on this essay at Parsons, moderator, Susan Bright states that the  essay is about looking, the gaze, subject, object. This is at the heart of the essay. It then goes on to cover truth, neutrality, and the positions of power between sitter and photographer.

Rosler (p 303) begins her essay by stating: “The Bowery, in New York, is an archetypal skid row” and wonders why photographers seem so drawn to photograph the down-and-outs living in this street. She then poses the question “how can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photographic practice” (Rosler, p 303).

She makes mention of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, documentary photographers who argued to rectify the wrongs of society. Documentary photography, according to Rosler, is a product of moralism. It is a way to appeal to the elite classes via magazines, books and newspapers and even art galleries and museums, to bring attention to various socio-political or economic events occurring and affecting the lesser classes in America. The references in the essay are all American.

Documentary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming threat into fantasy, into imagery. Once can handle imagery by leaving it behind. (It is then, not us.) One may even, as a private person support causes.

(Rosler p. 306)

11 year old girl picking potatoes
Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of it when sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much.” Lewis W. Hine. Location: Potawotamie County, Oklahoma. Call Number: LOT 7475, v. 2, no. 4593 [P&P]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Rosler regards the type of photos taken at The Bowery as victim photography. Perhaps she feels that the photographer is taking advantage (or abusing) the homeless people’s situation by exposing them to film. Would they willingly consent to be photographed if they were sober? Again the elite classes are shown a world that they would not normally (or willingly) travel to. This brings us to Diane Arbus’s images where “she arranged her satisfyingly immobilized imagery, as a surrogate for the real thing, the real freak show” (Rosler p. 307). It is impolite to stare, especially at strange people. This we are taught as children, but now in our “pugnacious self-interest” we are free of this convention and can look and stare to our hearts content at these freaks of society without the need to feel empathy. No one is standing by with a cap asking for a handout.

Documentary photography has been misrepresented by being used in various commercials. An ad running in the Canadian Vancouver Province newspaper in 1971 done as a documentary expose on the mudmen in New Guinea, only revealing at the end that it is really an ad for Canadian Club whisky. In a similar vein a Visa ad features a man and a little boy, both sporting berets, riding a bicycle down a tree-lined street, with a few loaves of baguettes strapped to the carrier. Rosler recognized the photo as one done by Elliott Erwitt in the 1950’s for a tourism agency.  The Visa ad was recreated in 1979 by a TV commercial company.

Documentary photography tends to have two moments. The first moment is the immediate one when an image is captured and held as evidence of that split second moment in time. The second is the “aesthetic-historical” moment, a moment less defined, where the viewer gives way to the aesthetics of the image. This second moment is rather dangerous as with the passing of time we tend to lose the specific reference in which the photograph was taken. The historical aspect often gets lost over time and we put our own skewed connotations to the image.

As examples of this we can see David Burnett’s photograph, Detained Prisoner taken in 1973 after the coup in Chile. There is no historical record of who the man who is flanked by two soldiers is. All we know is that he was a prisoner. Did he survive, was he freed? We shall never know. In contrast, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson, Migrant Mother, a destitute migrant working in the 1930’s, has stood the test of time in the photography world. Florence Thompson remarked in 1972 that she allowed Lange to make the photograph of her in the hope that the photograph would help her. The camp where Thompson resided was fixed up but unfortunately Thompson was no longer there, so she never benefited directly from the help. Thompson’s story has become entrenched with the photograph that Dorothea Lange took during the New Deal Era.

So the credibility of the image comes into question as does the objectivity and transparency. But the Right who see elite classes and lower classes as natural evolutions “wish to seize a segment of photographic practice, securing the primacy of authorship, and isolte it within the gallery-museum-art-market nexus, effectively differentiating elite understanding and its objects from common understanding” (Rosler p 320).

By the early 1980’s documentary photography has moved away from recording social causes. The new generation of photographers now documented life, the real world, the commonplace in a very personal way. They found that the banal was worth looking at.

Towards the end of the essay Rosler again turns to The Bowery, informing the reader on how she documented her body of work. She used adjectives and nouns as metaphors alongside her photographs. The first series consisted of adjectives one would use to describe various states of inebriatedness to illustrate the journey into alcoholism and ending in death. For the adjectives she drew on words pertaining to the outside world as well as the Bowery. In the second series, she used only nouns and these pertained exclusively to the Bowery.

Arguments made by documentary photography “have been twisted into generalizations”, have become commodities with high prices attached to them. The more commercialised the documentary image becomes the less clout the argument will have.

The liberal documentary of the past that appealed to the elite classes is something of a bygone era. It has been supplanted by a contemporary type of documentary where racism, gender issues, class oppression, exposure to types of abuses are the norm. But as always the story will be told by the photographer from his/her point of view.


Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’. in The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. ed. by Bolton. R. Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 303 – 325.

Martha Rosler (n.d.)  [online] Available from: [Accessed 18 May, 2015]

Confounding Expectations: Revisiting “in, Around, and Aterthoughts on Document Photography” [vidcast, online] Aperture Foundation at The New School: Documentary Photography. Sponsored by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. 15/11/2010. 1 hour 28 mins 18 secs. (accessed 18 May, 2015)


Project 1: Eyewitnesses?

The brief:

Look up some of the examples mentioned above online – or any other news photographs of emergencies.

Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Write a list of the arguments for and against.

Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines the word objective as “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions; unbiased; fair”.

I believe pictures and by pictures I am referring to documentary and photo journalistic images are for the most part made as objectively as possible. In a documentary photography class I took a few years ago the students were given a handout with the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics to follow. The Code of Ethics can be seen here.  In it photographers are admonished to be accurate in their representation of the event they are photographing, not to manipulate a situation so that it blows into a “news worthy event”, not to manipulate images (no Photoshopping to remove a pole behind someone’s head even), not to pay sources or subjects or accept favours and so on. Photographers are severely censored if it is discovered that they have manipulated their images. The same cannot be said of conceptual or fine art photos where many images have been Photoshopped to remove or add components, layered with other images to produce special effects and other such manipulations. Notwithstanding this, there will always be something of a photographer in his/her photos. The same incident recorded by five photographers will be different images, have different points of view and different angles. I think once the photograph is viewed by the viewer though, we tend to take a subjective view on the image, imposing our knowledge,  and personal views. So in summary I think that while photographs are made as objectively as possible with regards to the story, the photographer cannot help but be subjective with regards to the way he responds to the situation in front of him.

I have read in David Bate’s book, Photography The Key Concepts (p 53) that photographs that offer a “neutral camera view”, like those portraits of August Sander where the subjects faces are almost expressionless are classed as ‘objective’. Other examples that he cites are the work of John Thomson in The Streets of London and Eugene Atget’s The Parisian. Bate calls this ‘tripod-photography’. The photos where split-second expressions and movements are captured fall into the ‘subjective’ category (‘shutter photography’).

I have chosen as my first image one of the xenophobia attacks which broke out in South Africa towards the end of April 2015. It is a brutal image, showing a knife attack on a Mozambican national in the Alexandra township near Johannesburg. He was stabbed in the heart and left  on the street. In the background residents just stand and look on. He later died of his injuries in hospital. The photographer’s point of view is extremely close to the incident and in a fast moving incident as this (the attack lasted about two minutes) I don’t believe there is any time to be objective, especially if the photographer’s own life was at risk. I think objectivity would require a bit of forethought and planning – clearly not applicable here. Because of the photographer’s proximity and the fact that we can see the assailant’s expression we are drawn into the frame as if we are there too. What we are left wondering though is how many other people were standing watching out of frame, were there other assailants rushing to take part in this attack. If we look at the series of images taken by photographer James Oatway, we see that there were indeed more people and more assailants, and that it was a very fast moving scenario.

Xenophobia - Alexandra Township

The next image taken in October 2014 shows reservist Nathan Cirillo of Hamilton, Ontario receiving CPR minutes after having been shot by terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a recent convert to Islam turned jihadist.  A fellow soldier kneels in his blood trying to help him.  Cirillo was a honour guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial just steps away from the Canadian Parliament Buildings. He was shot in the back twice at point blank range. Sadly honour guards carry unloaded firearms while on duty. Therefore, the three other guards also on duty were unable to return fire on the terrorist. The remains of an unidentified Canadian solider who succumbed during the First World War lie interred in the tomb. The Unknown Soldier honours more than 116,000 Canadian who gave their lives in the fight for peace and freedom, whether soldiers, air force, merchant marine or navy. It also pays homage to those who lost their lives in battle in past, present and future conflicts. There is an extreme sadness to this image in that a soldier is killed in cold blood while guarding those who have fought for freedom. Because the scene is more stationary than the one above, the photographer would have had a few seconds to consider his position and find the better vantage point for the image. However, the photographer’s point of view places the viewer outside the frame. The main subjects have their backs turned to us and the two faces we do see are engaged with their colleagues. This state is echoed by the bystanders in the distance. They too are looking on, but their view is blocked by the marble tomb. The scene almost appears to be frozen in time. For me this image almost straddles the definitions of objectivity and subjectivity.

Shooting on Parliament Hill, Ottawa October 2014

The next image was taken in June 2011 and went viral throughout the world. It was taken during the Stanley Cup (ice hockey) riots. After losing to the Boston Bruins team in the final play offs, the Vancouver fans went beserk. They overturned police cars, set them alight, smashed windows, and looted department stores. The damage to the downtown core was tremendous. I remember wondering what on earth the couple was thinking when I first saw this image the day after the riots. This photo was given various captions of a couple making love while riots took place around them, all of which were incorrect. In an interview with the couple on local TV, the young man said that they had been knocked down by the riot police and that he was just comforting his girlfriend with a kiss, before helping her up again.  Admittedly it is one of those images where the back story is crucial to the correct understanding of the situation. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the riot police in front and behind the couple in tender embrace creates an ambiguity to the image that begs further investigation. There is a story of peace and war in this image. Although the photographer seems to be a distance from the subjects, the looming figure of the riot policeman with his baton and protective shield in the foreground places the viewer in the frame. There is a lot of action going in in the frame – the riot police running towards a fire, the policeman approaching on the crowd (unseen) in the foreground with a threatening stance and the kissing couple in the middle of the road, all meeting the criteria of the subjective camera view.

Couple kissing during Stanley Cup Riots 2011


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

Laing, Aislinn, The Telegraph (2015). Mobs kill at least seven foreigners after Zulu king says South Africa should be purged of ‘lice’. [online] National Post: Canada. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

National Post staff, (2011). Photos: Riots, fire, destruction after Vancouver’s loss [online]. Natonal Post: Canada. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

Natonal Post staff and the Canadian Press (2014) Images from the Ottawa shooting that left the Canadian capital in chaos [online]. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

Tromp B, Olifant N and Savides M, (2015). Kill thy neighbour: Alex attack brings home SA’s shame [online]. Times Live: South Africa. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]

Veteran Affairs Canada. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier [online]. Government of Canada. Available from: [Accessed 4 May, 2015]