For millennia words were humanity’s most accurate way of recording and remembering history. But in the last 150 years, the world has come to take for granted what Roland Barthes called the “evidential force” of the photographic image, its ability to show us a slice of reality, something that once was. Documentary photographers and photojournalists have provided us with what we consider the most persuasive form of historical evidence, and we rely on such reporters and their documents to bring us information about important events and situations around the world. But like words, images can relate fact or fiction. And as with words, our understanding of the veracity of images is largely determined by the genre in which they are used. In recent years changing journalistic ideals and technologies have contributed to the emergence of an increasingly subjective, cinematic style of journalism, and as a result the status of the image as a reliable historical document is being compromised. As it becomes ever more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction we run the serious risk of assuming the role of a mere audience in a world that desperately needs our active participation.
Until the 1920s cameras were large and awkward devices, but the release of the Leica, a lightweight, portable camera, in 1925 enabled the modern field of photojournalism to emerge. The desire to represent important moments with pictures is an ancient impulse seen in drawings, paintings, and engravings, but with “fast” cameras like the Leica came the possibility of actually capturing moments in a mechanical, scientific, and seemingly objective manner. Photographers began to exploit the speed of the camera to capture, for the first time in history, “candid” images, images that were not posed (Davenport 96). Along with the new cameras came a new philosophy that photographs should, and could, capture the immediate truth of an objective reality.
The “documentary” genre that emerged from this philosophy shot from a head-on, eye-level angle, in sharp focus, without elaborate composition, and with natural light. The documentary style seemed to eliminate most of the subjective interference and artistic pretension of the photographer. This documentary style became the default for photojournalism and is still the style we associate with news. Photojournalists, documentary photographers who intend their work for publication, quickly became important fixtures in news organizations as the public clamored for new and interesting images of the world. The years leading up to World War II saw the rise of professional photojournalism, and with the introduction of Life magazine in 1936, documentary photographs became equal to words as America’s source of information (Davenport 98).
At the end of World War II it would be through the medium of photography that Americans would come to fully understand the evil they had been battling. Images from Nazi concentration camps were irrefutable proof that the war had been necessary and just. Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph (Fig. 1) of a woman covering her face to avoid looking at a heap of dead bodies is one of the most disturbing and compelling images from the camps. It is also an example of the important attributes of good photojournalism. Unlike most of Bourke-White’s photographs, which tend to be stylized and dramatically lit (Fig. 2 & 3), this image is shot in the straightforward documentary style. The photographer does not aestheticize the scene. There is a simple reporting of facts: the dead bodies, the MP’s, the civilians. The only missing information is supplied by the caption, “German civilians made to face their nation’s crime, Buchenwald, 1945” (Callahan 128). This objectivity allows the viewer to make a variety of interpretations: the woman is horrified by what has happened, she is unwilling to accept what she sees, her refusal to look represents the willful blindness of the German people to the Nazi’s activities. As in real life, the exact meaning of the scene, and the appropriate reaction to it, are left for the viewer to determine. Bourke-White’s image acts on the viewer much the way the real scene might. First there is the recognition of something altogether wrong, something hideously unnatural. Then disbelief sets in (Are they dead? Is it real?), followed by shock, disgust, rage, and finally sorrow, a sorrow filled with the grim acceptance of the truth of the image and the world it captures.
Bourke-White’s image documents a specific event in which Germans were forced to view Bauchenwald, and at the same time stands as a representative image of the larger history of the Holocaust and WWII. The photographic style makes it a strong historical document on both accounts. Documentary style images appear “realistic,” that is as objective reportings of actual situations, to which the photograph bears witness. This realism allows the viewer to see past the medium of the photograph itself, into the content of the scene depicted. In the mind of the viewer the image becomes equal to the event, and the photograph then plays on the emotions as if it were real. The photograph can act, says Susan Sontag, “[as] a means of making ‘real’ (or more ‘real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore” (7). The power of the documentary image lies in its ability to elicit from the viewer an “active response,” rather than passive acceptance or mere voyeurism (Sontag 81). The photograph, any photograph, is a window onto a world. The photographic style is a key component in determining whether we perceive that world as our own—real, factual, historical—world, or some other—unreal, fictional, imaginary—world. Only when the image is perceived as factual can it carry the full weight of an historical document, and ensure that we will remember the reality of the event depicted.
The fact that there is nothing special, aesthetically speaking, about Bourke-White’s image gives it added credibility as a document. There is no rule that a photojournalist’s work cannot be beautiful. But a beautiful image is typically associated with the efforts of an artist. Since art is sometimes thought of as subjective self-expression, the goals of an artist might seem to interfere with the journalistic ideal of objective factual reporting. What is important here is not whether these goals do necessarily interfere, nor whether the photographer is an artist or a journalist—I believe he can be both. The value of an historical document is derived from the relationship between the document and the viewer. If a photograph that is dramatically composed and lit gives the appearance of having been orchestrated or manipulated by the photographer, or if the composition appears to be implying an opinion or romantic vision, it cannot be equated with an objective factual reality. Since this equating is what gives the photograph its weight as a document, the belief of the viewer is the primary factor in determining the historical authority of an image. While not inherently incompatible with journalism, beauty can easily conflict with and overshadow substance, particularly in a medium that is by its nature biased toward appearances.* An image that is not as “good” is less likely to seem planned or manufactured, and is therefore seemingly more objective, hence more believable as a document.
The power and truth of an image seem to lie more in the murky waters of human psychology than in the objective properties of the image itself. According to art historian John Tagg the acceptability of an image as an historical document has very little to do with its visual style. In his book The Burden of Representation, Tagg asserts that our belief in the factual nature of the documentary genre is a culturally defined convention (8-10, 103, 119). He argues that the acceptance of certain types of images as forms of historical evidence stems from their adoption and dissemination by respected governmental and private institutions, such as law enforcement agencies and newspaper publishers, who presented these images as accurate representations of reality. It is not, according to Tagg, the authority of the image that makes it a valid historical document, but the authority of the institution that legitimizes the image (4, 63, 76, 118). Over time we have, as a society, been conditioned to accept documentary style images as accurate representations of reality, but the documentary style is just a genre, and we might, Tagg implies, have accepted a different visual style as “realistic.”
Tagg’s is an interesting perspective to take when examining the work of contemporary photographer Sebastião Salgado. Salgado is considered by some the most talented documentary photographer working today. For the last sixteen years he has been taking pictures of suffering: suffering caused by civil war, oppression, and famine. Yet because of the extreme beauty of many of his images, Salgado has been accused of making art out of the suffering of others. He has said, “What I want in my pictures is not that they’ll look like art objects. They are journalist pictures. All my pictures. No exceptions” (Harris 160). During 1984-85 Salgado was in the Sahel region of Africa, where refugees from Ethiopia’s civil war were being killed, not by violence, but by famine. While in some of his photographs Salgado employs a straightforward documentary style to great journalistic effect (Fig. 4 & 5), in others his framing, composition, and aesthetic decisions seem to reject the notion that there is any boundary between subjective art and objective journalism. Salgado does not differentiate between his different types of images, and in displaying his photographs side by side he indicates to the viewer that they are of equal journalistic importance.
One of Salgado’s most famous images (Fig. 6), the first of 29 prints in his photo essay from the Sahel, of what appears to be a group of nomads crossing the desert, has an epic, cinematic quality to it. As he often does, Salgado frames his subjects on the edge of a barren landscape, isolating them and making them seem alone in a vast, empty world. Wrapped in blankets his nomads are like natural objects, pillars of rock or sand. This serves to create a frozen quality that is common to Salgado’s images. It seems as though his figures have been standing forever, as if time had stopped thousands of years ago while the Jews were still wandering the desert, and this image is of that unchanging, eternal moment. The image has no internal clues as to its context, either in time or in location. The wrapped figure on the right, we cannot tell if it is a man or a woman, clearly resonates with images of the Madonna (Fig. 7). It even appears that there is a child being held underneath her cloak. If we focus on this character, we can see that she has an aura, or glow. The sky to the far left and right of the Madonna figure is a much darker shade of gray than what surrounds her. And this aura extends below the horizon, down around the edges of the subject. The only natural cause for this odd lighting might be if the sun were directly behind the figure. Yet it is clear from the highlights that the sun is to the left of the subjects and low in the sky. The cloth on the left edge of the Madonna figure, however, seems darker than it should be, and is not picking up the same highlight as the other figures. Though there is no way to prove it, this aura appears to be the product of work done in the darkroom.
NYU professor and curator Fred Ritchin has said that “while respecting the facts of the situation, Salgado attempts to re-create, through visual metaphor, what he sees as its essential human drama—the invisible made visible” (147). One wonders if Salgado embeds the Christian symbolism consciously and purposefully, or if it simply arises from the “invisible” world he brings forth. Ritchin goes on to suggest that Salgado, a Brazilian, “[is] with other Latin Americans drawn to what has been called a ‘magical realism’” (147). His photograph of an emaciated boy standing in the desert, leaning on a cane (Fig. 8) is an example of an image whose documentary value is intermingled with its magical qualities. The boy’s physical condition, the dead tree, and the barren landscape seem, as a documentary statement, to be about drought, famine, poverty, hardship. But as in the previous image there is a narrative, cinematic quality. The boy’s cane, and his skeletal features give him the dual appearance of child and old man. The analogy of the boy with the tree, and the fact that the boy is naked, again make the subject feel like part of the natural environment. The frozen feeling and the completely unified white background give this image an otherworldly quality. The subject stands erect, poised, proud, staring out at what we can only assume to be more emptiness. Salgado’s subject becomes the sole human journeying through this vast other universe which is somehow natural, yet eternal and transcendent.
The above photographs cannot be said to employ the documentary style. Yet Salgado is considered, and considers himself, a documentary photographer and photojournalist. Salgado’s story is more subjective and his images more beautiful than most documentary work. But does that mean that his photographs are less reliable as historical documents? The answer is that Salgado is not, for the most part, concerned with documenting the obvious or apparent circumstances of his subjects. He seeks to tell the story not of the individuals he photographs, nor of their broader situation, but of what he seems to see as a universal human story of suffering and spiritual transcendence. It is Salgado’s story, a parable drawn from Latin American Catholic influences, but certainly not journalism or documentary photography as it is normally understood. Salgado is like a writer who mixes journalism, editorial, and fiction in the same book and leaves it to his readers to understand the difference. That Salgado is considered a documentary photographer raises the question of what it means at this moment in time to document reality.
I believe that Salgado’s style is indicative of a changing tolerance in what is being accepted as real, and at the same time a changing understanding of what reality is. And these are not changes for the better. New forms of media have altered the conventional social understanding of what represents factual reality. Flipping television channels we go from Fox News (reality?), to “Law and Order” “ripped from the headlines” (fiction?), to “Survivor” (reality television?). On television, as in Salgado’s images, there is no clear way to define where fact ends and fiction begins. Keeping in mind Tagg’s argument that different visual styles might be accepted as real, it is possible, and I think probable, that Salgado’s magical, or spiritual realism is a style that to him best represents reality. His photographs record subjective reality, and are in that sense documentary and historical, but not journalistic.
If his images are accepted as real, if they are truly equated with reality, then they may represent a new convention, a new type of historical document. Yet the magical realism, epic landscapes, perfect lighting and framing (and perhaps special effects) of Salgado’s photographs have a cinematic quality. And like films they seem real in a way that reality is not—better, more interesting, and importantly, more bearable. There is no violence, no horror, no struggle that is too much for a movie viewer to bear. If journalism looks like film it allows us to suspend our disbelief, when we should in fact be (as with the Bourke-White image) confronting our disbelief. For images “to alter conduct,” Susan Sontag argues, “they must shock” (81). But images such as Salgado’s trigger our movie viewing persona, one that expects and accepts violence, destruction, and suffering. In the majority of Salgado’s images, the form overwhelms the content, and the vital step of equating the image with reality does not take place.
As we continue to gain more of our factual information from television, the television style image will replace the documentary image as the default indicator of reality. Wide screen, High Definition televisions, which will soon be ubiquitous, will give television a more cinematic appearance, and as “films” begin to be shot on High Definition video (rather than film) the difference in aesthetic quality between television and film will largely dissolve. Salgado’s style of documentary is a precursor to what will become an epic, cinematic style of journalism, which will not clearly separate fact from fiction.
Journalistic objectivity may be an arbitrary convention, a form of subjectivity unconsciously agreed upon as representing truth. Yet even if that is the case the maintenance of a conventional means of depicting true events is absolutely necessary for a morally functional society. Words and images are our only means of conveying complex information. While we have rules of logic for language, there are no such rules for images. Without a conventional standard for veracity, communication becomes the meaningless shuffling of symbols. For decades the documentary style image has been the standard for truth, but as artists like Salgado appropriate and incorporate this style into a subjective documentary genre, our journalism and our world will become more beautiful and less real, and photography will lose its power to represent reality, and to elicit an active response. If photographic documents do not act on us as if they were real, if images like Bourke-White’s are seen as fiction rather than fact, than we will lose the power and knowledge of our history. And will be doomed to repeat it.
* I am not arguing that art must always be beautiful, only that a visual image that is beautiful conforms to what is typcially understood as an artist’s goal. A beautiful painting does not happen by chance, the way a beautiful photograph can, and many paintings we see are beautiful. Therefore, whether or not it is true in the case of a photograph, we may be tempted to equate beauty with design, which affects the viewer’s beliefs about an given image.
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